I must confess I knew nothing of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal before going to see I, Tonya. I was aware that Tonya was a figure skater with a tough life and that was about it. The film deals with Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robie) difficult childhood, her skating career and the incident in 1994 that marred the rest of her life. Margot Robie gives a career best performance as Tonya – fiery and fragile, a victim of circumstance – and it’s not hard to see why she has been nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Tonya Harding is not vindicated or exonerated by the film, it simply tells her side of the story which was neglected by the media in 1994. In a story in which the truth is so hard to find, it is apt that the focus of the film is on the nature of truth. Indeed, each character is presented in mockumentary style interviews detailing their own version of events. Whilst the trailer presents I, Tonya as a comedy, there are more elements of tragedy, akin to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Tonya’s life is unfortunately defined by two abusive relationships: the first with her mother Lavona (Allison Janney), and the second with her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Tonya is introduced to us as a young child, taken to class by a whiskey drinking Lavona who is determined to make her the best. The Harding family is very poor, unable to afford the fancy outfits required to score the highest marks in skating competitions. Indeed, Tonya has to sew her outfits herself. Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly at the age of fifteen and they rapidly fall in love. After only a few months however, moustached Jeff becomes abusive and Tonya must deal with regular beatings from her husband to be. Despite all this hardship Tonya develops into one of the dominant forces in figure skating, becoming the second woman ever to complete a triple axel jump. As she looks forward to the qualification for the 1994 Olympics, husband Jeff and moronic ‘bodyguard’ Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) hatch a plot to take out Tonya’s closest competition, Nancy Kerrigan, the infamous “incident”.
I, Tonya deals with a difficult story hilariously at times, but more often emotionally. Tonya is no saint in real life and she isn’t depicted as one in the film. She may be a victim of a terrible upbringing, but she makes plenty of mistakes. Allison Janney is brilliant as Lavona, bitingly amusing and despicable in equal measures. Director Craig Gillespie twirls the camera around the skating scenes in a dizzyingly gorgeous fashion, letting the audience see Tonya’s reactions to her joyous on-ice success. The decision to include the mocked-up interviews is brilliant, adding another dimension to the characters, considerably aged to their early ‘90s counterparts (although all played by the same actors, some with prosthetics).
The movie dwells a little long on the Nancy Kerrigan incident and the idiots that carried it out, rather than focusing on Tonya’s captivating life. Moreover, some of the domestic abuse scenes were not as serious as they perhaps should have been. Apparently, some audiences laughed at the abuse scenes which is shocking, but they really stuck with me as horrific. It must be Tonya’s considerable strength in the face of the assaults which brought the audience to laugh.
I, Tonya is a great biopic in a genre which can often be boring or simple hero worship. Tonya Harding is presented as a real woman, with merits and flaws, successes and failures, and you truly empathise with her. As the credits roll, interviews with the real Jeff, Shawn and Lavona are shown, along with footage of Tonya’s performance in the 1991 US Championships. I cried in the cinema, but when I got home and watched the 1991 performance in full, I was shocked to find myself crying again. In her interview afterwards, she thanks her husband especially, a sad moment to look back on, on what is ultimately a tragic story, lovingly brought to the big screen.
Ewan Wood | [rating=4]
Biography, Drama | USA, 2017 | 15 | 23rd February 2018 (UK) | eOne UK | Dir.Craig Gillespie | Margot Robbie, Alison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic