Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Alison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson
Plot: Tonya Harding (Robbie) is the opposite of the industry’s idea of a figure skater, a fact she struggles with alongside an abusive husband, a foul mother and a dangerous short fuse.
The story of Tonya Harding is so crazy, unpredictable and compelling that, if it weren’t for the usual biopic nuances (end credits of the real person, mockumentary interview beats, snapshots of real life events), you would assume that this story is entirely fictionalised. However, sadly, no matter how bleakly funny director Gillespie plays it, in order to try and distract us from how dark this tale actually is, the horrors of this story are, for the most part, true.
It starts with a disturbing image of Tonya being dragged kicking and screaming into the world of ice figure skating. Alison Janney is unforgettable as Tonya’s mother, LaVona Fay Golden, who decides that the best thing for her daughter is to push her into this sport. While Janney’s despicable mother figure claims to be acting out of love for her child, the truth appears to be the opposite. She pulls Tonya out of school, so focusing on skating can be her sole objective. However, at the same time, she feels a strange mix of empowered and frustrated at her daughter’s dependence on her, seeing as she has no qualifications outside of her talents on the rink. Tonya Harding is a wonderful skater, something that her mother never seems content with. There is always another step to be taken. After some impressive skating, her mother taunts and bullies her for not putting her all in. The judges also don’t take too kindly to Tonya. Wanting the champion skaters to represent the American ideal, the trashy Tonya Harding, showing up to competitions with cheap outfits she made herself and far too much make-up, is a far cry from the classy women they want to put through. Regardless of her clear talent, Tonya is constantly hard-done by, a fact which only intensifies her relationship with her mother. For a time, solace comes in the form of Sebastian Stan – playing confidently against type – a sweet boyfriend character. However, their relationship becomes twice as dysfunctional as Tonya’s one with her mother. They are constantly breaking up and getting back together and beating each other up. Gillespie finds a tricky balancing act in portraying the abuse Tonya both suffers and delves out. The violence isn’t shied away from, but Gillespie goes for a strange comical tone. As Margot Robbie chases Sebastian Stan with a shotgun out of her house, it feels the director is going for a laugh when we should be feeling uncomfortable. Tonal problems aside, the story is clear: Harding is stuck with a nasty lover but doesn’t want to risk returning to her just-as-bad mother. The consensus: outside of the skating, Tonya Harding doesn’t have much going for her.
All of this acts as a rich tapestry acting as a backdrop to the meat of the story. Tonya Harding was made famous as the villain in one of the biggest sports scandals of our time. It is unclear just how involved she was in the assault on her main rival, but she did hide evidence from the FBI. With all of the information shown above, Gillespie asks us to readdress our perspective on the story. Tonya Harding is, by no means, an innocent woman. Her rough living has carved her into a volatile and angry person, who it wouldn’t come as a surprise to know that she would consider threatening her competitor. But Tonya definitely isn’t evil; merely a victim of circumstance. When we get to the crime itself, Gillespie’s handling of the event may frustrate some. This is where the story feels more fictionalised than biographical, as I, Tonya feels like a crime caper movie. It zooms in on a bunch of inept criminals, bungling an assault and failing to cover it up. Complete with a pumping soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a Scorsese or Edgar Wright movie, sometimes it is just that little bit too cool for itself. However, the story is compelling and the fact that it feels like fiction only adds to how unbelievable this true story actually was. By the end, when the world crumbles down on poor Tonya Harding, you will definitely view the whole scandal with a little more thought. Was Tonya as bas as they made her out to be? Or was she out of her league from the start?
No matter your opinion on the handling of the story, it is undeniable that Margot Robbie has, once again, landed a powerhouse of a performance. For one, this movie sees her strip back to the sexuality and glamour that she made her name with in Suicide Squad and Wolf of Wall Street. There will be no crushes formed over Robbie’s Tonya Harding. Brash, trashy and violent, Robbie is free to crack on with some actual acting. And it is fantastic to watch. Going for insolent teenager, hating the world around her, refusing to be the victim in her story, to the broken woman at the end of the film – this could be the best we have ever seen the actress. Even when she is at her worst and almost inviting her fate, she is strangely endearing, a deer caught in the headlights. Margot Robbie should have walked away the most talked about thing here, but it is Alison Janney who cleaned up on awards night. The surprising thing about I, Tonya is that Janney’s character of the mother isn’t as vital a component as you would have thought. She is essential to the introduction, but as soon as Tonya gets wise, Janney is pushed out of the story. However, the performance is so shockingly vile that Janney is still the thing worth talking about when the credits roll to a close. In fact, it feels like Janney was so good, the writers got together and conjured up some more scenes with her in, grabbing an excuse to extend the joy of Janney’s acting. Very impressive indeed.
Final Verdict: A few tonal issues aside, I, Tonya is a re-examination of the story of Tonya Harding and analysing whether she is as bad as the media suggested.