Centred on the life of former 1991 and 1994 U.S champion and Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, and directed by Lars and the Real Girl’s Craig Gillespie, you’d be mistaken in thinking that I, Tonya is a biopic. Whilst it follows Harding’s life, from relative infancy to widespread infamy, detailing the events leading up to the attack on fellow U.S figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (she was ‘whacked’ in practice just prior to the 94 Winter Olympic games at Lillehammer, knees thrashed with a baton, Harding’s family directly involved) the film is no Walk the Line, The Aviator style biographical piece of cinema. Rather, its black comedy, loose biography, blisteringly paced ridiculousness, and at times, The Office and Parks and Recreation on the big screen (think cut away interviews, breaking the fourth wall mockumentary). That said, it’s an enjoyable if not a slightly bizarre watch.
We’re told at the very beginning that what we’re about to see is based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with Tonya herself (Margot Robbie), and her former husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The fact that Robbie, who also acts as a producer, thought the script was initially fictitious, tells you all you need to know about the Harding case, and about Tonya’s life. It has to be seen to be sort of believed. Her life is a hard one though. No one can say Harding had it easy.
The fifth child of LaVona Harding (Allison Janney), via husband number four, the “totally American” Tonya drags herself from childhood in 70s Portland, Oregon to become a world renown figure skater. Forced into the sport by her abusive mother (we are led to believe), Tonya is everything America doesn’t want. White trash, foul mouthed, loud, relatively uneducated, she isn’t the princess of the piece. No sparkly taffeta costumes or classical music. It’s wall to wall polyester and ZZ Top. And it’s only through sheer willpower and sheer skill that she makes it, and we make it, to 1992, with support given by the way of husband Jeff (at first, physical abuse later), and her coach Diane Rawlinson. Mother smoking in the stands.
You can break I, Tonya, into two acts. The above is the first half, the first act, before the oncoming tragedy.
Yet what writer Steve Rogers manages to do pre-1992, and pre-the 1994 Winter Olympics (more on the second act later), is give us the background we need to understand what happens in the future; why the attack on Kerrigan occurs. And why too, Harding falls from grace. The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and whilst Rogers is, at times, too concerned with the surface level stuff for his own good, he still delivers on the biographical (however true it may be) fodder that allows us to see Harding as a woman, rather than the press caricature she inevitably becomes. We need to go back, as it were, to go forward.
However, there are times where the ‘tone’ of the film comes into dispute. A black comedy, for sure, there are moments where delicate substance is handled with a heavy comedic hand. Perhaps reflecting on the way in which Tonya brushes off most of what happened to her with a ‘that’s life’ attitude, you still find yourself laughing at scenes which, on a second watch, are anything but funny. This is no more pronounced than with the abuse Harding endures from her husband and mother. Acrid to the point of acidic, and played to the nines by Allison Janney, LaVona is the viper of the family; the villain of the piece. Gilooly is no better. Yet, there are moments when Rogers writing soars. Poignant and piercing in equal measure, when Tonya confronts her mother and blames her for the way she thinks she deserves to be beaten, it’s deftly delivered.
This style, and indeed tone, follows us into the second act of the movie; Harding’s downfall. After receiving a death threat prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, now back in the game after briefly becoming a waitress and turning her back on the sport following a disappointing 1992 run, Gilooly decides to send death threats over to Kerrigan in retaliation. As history will tell us, it goes far beyond that. And although she isn’t innocent in her actions when it comes to the Kerrigan attack, the heartbreak of the film is that it is those around Tonya who end up ruining her to the point of no return. You can’t help but feel sympathy for the woman who endured for so long, to have it taken away by her idiot ex-husband and her equally idiotic, although admittedly hilarious ‘bodyguard’ Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).
Foiled by the FBI, never has planning a ‘hit’ looked so stupid.
Again, we find ourselves in a black comedy biopic, breaking the fourth wall to hear how Gilooly and Eckhardt planned it all (their statements never match, mind). This mockumentary style works as many times as it doesn’t, and Gillespie juggles it with slightly unsteady hands. Yet, and for no lack of trying, I, Tonya is wildly watchable. Dragging you in like the Daily Mail sidebar of shame and spitting you out at the end.
The soundtrack is all killer, little filler too, and the scenes in which Robbie skates to ZZ Top’s ‘Sleeping Bag’, shot exquisitely with a single handheld camera, is pure joy. So too, is her triple axel.
All in all, it’s a soap opera for the big screen; a backhanded sort of compliment if ever there was one (sorry). Funny as hell, and painfully sad, it never quite reaches the heights it sets itself in terms of the ‘message’ it’s trying to deliver. Commentary on classism in America, domestic abuse, and the ever-influential arm of the gutter press, it turns to the comedy far too many times to make it truly meaningful, failing to give Kerrigan a voice in any of it either. Never quite finding the right balance, when Robbie faces the camera at the end of the film and tells us directly that “we are all her abusers” it doesn’t hit the nerve I’m sure it intended.
Yet Robbie does knock it out of the park as Harding, proving that she isn’t a one trick pony. Sebastian Stan is equally watchable, and Allison Janney proves once again why she is one of the top actors when it comes to wit sharp comedic acting; when she isn’t on screen, you wish her to return.
As addictive as you’d expect from such a madcap tale, I, Tonya is an irresistible slice of pop culture cinema, but it’s not as affecting as it tries to be.
Review by Emily Harrison
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