An oversized, entertaining ride, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a loud call for empathy for one of America’s most derided and hated public figures. It tackles the elusive nature of truth in a media age that demands binary representations of heroes and villains, as well as issues of class and domestic violence, with a brute force bluntness. Starring Margot Robbie as the disgraced American ice-skater Tonya Harding, it’s a profane, tragic, and imperfect crowd-pleaser that dazzles with its style and heart.
Filled with flash, theatricality, and 90s period details, I, Tonya uses a faux docu-drama framework to trace Harding’s wild, painful life and career, as she suffered through abuse and poverty to become one of the best figure skaters in the world before her explosive downfall. Much of the narrative revolves around this downfall, precipitated by what the film’s characters call “the incident”.
For those who don’t know, “the incident” refers to the 1994 assault on Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan was kneecapped with a baton by a paid thug, in a failed attempt to remove her from the Olympic team. Masterminded by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, she has nonetheless spent decades vilified and laughed at for her assumed part in the inept attack.
Zipping through Harding’s life at almost too quick a pace, I, Tonya alternates between a mockumentary, pitch-black comedy and tragedy. It aims for an uneasy tonal mix of dark humour and grimness that doesn’t always work; a few montages of domestic violence and poverty-stricken life set to music are played for uncomfortable laughs that don’t land. They make a point of showing Tonya always fighting back, but it still feels a little queasy. The film occasionally veers into caricature and mean-spirited laughter, but it’s saved by its empathy for Margot Robbie’s rendition of Tonya.
This is easily Robbie’s best performance yet. She capture’s Harding’s fierce, combative spirit and outward toughness, as well as her deep vulnerability. It’s a role that requires range, with moments of joy, terror, failure, and everything in between—and she nails it. Crucially, Harding’s ice-skating ability is given a good amount of screen time in some thrillingly staged performance sequences. It’s an admirable attempt to give the audience something else to remember Tonya by than just the incident, and Robbie’s palpable joy in these sequences is charming. She was never really given a fair shot at a figure skating career, ‘cursed’ by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother (Allison Janney) and her ex-husband (Sebastian Stan), and by her working-class status, in a sport that is judged just as much, if not more so, by image and conformity rather than skating ability.
Allison Janney’s performance as Harding’s awful, abusive mum risks turning her into a badass figure of truth, simply because she’s just so fucking cool. Janney tears into every bit of profane dialogue with an incredible zeal, even when what she’s actually saying is, frankly, bullshit. Eventually an undercurrent of resentment and tragedy is revealed, when we find out her twisted logic for treating Tonya the way she did.
Gillespie flaunts all sorts of stylistic devices throughout the film: freeze frames, showy camera moves, faux-interviews, fourth-wall breaking asides to the audience, and anything else that’s ever been used in a Scorsese film. Confessional interviews and narration from multiple characters is constant throughout the film, as each of the characters give their own version of the events. The style can feel distracting and heavy-handed at times. Some of the fourth wall breaks seem particularly self-conscious and unnecessary, considering the contradictory narration already serves the same function. It’s certainly always thrilling and fun to watch, however, and reflects the campy, overblown nature of the sport.
The movie also feels a bit self-satisfied with its own ideas. The idea that there is no one truth, just everyone’s version of the truth, is repeated so many times in such a grandiose manner it becomes irritating. It also takes an awfully accusatory tone towards the audience in the final stretch, implicating the audience in Tonya’s persecution, that feels a bit hypocritical, considering the film itself is just as infatuated with all the sensational details of the case. A sizable portion of the film is spent in detail on the incident, planned by Gillooly and Tonya’s delusional dimwit bodyguard, which has all the incompetence and absurdity of a Coen Brothers caper. And although it criticizes the simplistic, binary narrative of her being a pure villain, it perhaps goes a little easy on Harding. Her insistence that she had no knowledge of the attack isn’t interrogated very critically, and Nancy Kerrigan has a very bare presence. It’s a representation of Tonya as a pure victim, with no hand in her own fate, that doesn’t ring true.
Still, there’s a poignancy in seeing a woman who has become a pop-culture punchline forcibly take back control of the narrative of her life. Harding’s (and Robbie’s) irreverent spirit drives the film forward and gives it its emotional core. While a bit messy and heavy-handed, I, Tonya’s stylish fun and empathetic heart will win you over.
I, Tonya is in cinemas now.