I, Tonya: comedy, tragedy and ice-skating aplenty
Director: Craig Gillespie Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser Running Time: 120 minutes
At the inaugural turn of the 24-hour news cycle, around-the-clock coverage meant that more people had access to stories from across the globe. By the early 90s before white broncos sped down Los Angeles highways or actors were caught in suspicious alleys, one particular celebrity scandal in the US crossed the pond to make international headlines; the feud between olympic figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.
As a result of constant media coverage, Harding’s story was elevated from local crime to worldwide scandal overnight, as people lined up to watch the downfall of this notable figure and Olympic hopeful. Now, years later, director Craig Gillespie and star/producer Margot Robbie have joined forces to bring us I, Tonya, a black comedy based on the shocking and wildly contradictory first-hand accounts of all those involved.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a figure skater…” I’m not the first to notice the similarities between I, Tonya and Goodfellas, and I’m definitely not the first to make that awful joke… With untrustworthy narrators, 4th wall breaks, an era-defining soundtrack and the story of someone aspiring to be bigger than their roots, it’s clear that Gillespie’s vision for the film was influenced by Scorsese’s masterpiece, as well as some other crime caper classics.
By making similar stylistic choices, Gillespie is able to craft an unapologetic and fiercely entertaining viewing experience for audiences. While Tonya’s story spans through the years, the film moves confidently from scene to scene never parting with the energy, personality and attitude you feel in the first few scenes. This is due in large part to the recently Oscar nominated work of editor Tatiana S. Riegel and her ability to keep the audience glued to their seats throughout the 120 minute runtime.
While narrators Tonya Harding (Robbie), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan) & mother LaVona Harding (Janney) individually argue their own versions of events, one thing they find themselves agreeing upon seems to be the skater’s ‘difficult’ upbringing – sequin dresses and fur coats were stitched together using whatever material/animal they could find just so Harding could get her chance on the ice. By starting at this point and exploring it in detail, it becomes clear that the film sympathises with Harding and her involvement in ‘the incident’ that would occur years later.
By exploring themes such as privilege and perception in America, the film suggests Harding is merely a by-product of a life of being dubbed ‘white-trash’, which resulted in her alienation from the skating community and her cold exterior. While some may argue writer Steven Rogers (no relation!) is too sympathetic, the film doesn’t accept that the infamous figure skater is entirely without blame either, suggesting her tough, no-nonsense approach to life may have gotten her in trouble on more than one occasion – one scene sees Tonya holding her own as she chases her abusive husband out of the house with a shotgun before breaking the 4th wall absolutely remarking “this definitely didn’t happen…”
Considering the film’s approach to the story, I, Tonya needed an actor that could see beyond the rumours and headlines and appreciate Harding’s tenacity and humanity in equal measure. Luckily, Margot Robbie was the perfect person for the part. Taking the reigns as both a producer and the film’s main star, Robbie delivers a ferociously entertaining and emotional performance, which has rightly been dubbed the best of her career. At the core of her character, Harding is angry. Angry with the world she was born into. Angry with the mother who never cared for her. Angry at the skating world’s refusal to accept her for who she is. By recognising this, Robbie is able to ignite her performance and bring a level of authenticity to the role that other actors would not have been able to accomplish.
Although it has been pitched as a ‘black comedy’, the film identifies Harding’s story as a tragedy, and tells it as such. While one moment sees Harding’s misguided bodyguard blab about his secret network of international super spies, another sees her confronting the mother that emotionally neglected her for years. In the movie’s best scene, Harding stares into a mirror; preparing her makeup and practising her smile for what will likely be her final performance. Robbie elevates an otherwise standard dramatic moment in the film to a devastating moment of reflection on the state of her character’s life. At this point, her most vulnerable, Robbie gives the spotlight to the person beneath the tough exterior and emotional barriers, someone desperate to be understood.
Despite the presence of darker dramatic moments, the film is also raucously funny in parts, especially when the supporting characters get their time in the spotlight. Allison Janney’s mother, LaVona, is a venomously funny and dangerously sharp presence in the film. Her foul-mouthed lambasting of everyone unfortunate enough to occupy the same space as her is as hilarious as it is terrifying. However, while the films finds laughs throughout, they do stem from dark moments in Harding’s journey. As is the case with all great black comedies, the audience can find themselves cast from a fit of laughter headfirst into a moment of extreme tension in an instance.
I, Tonya is a black comedy laced with pathos and brava performances, especially from Margot Robbie. This wickedly funny and wonderfully heartfelt biopic about the rise and fall of an American icon has plenty to offer its audience, hopefully including a new take on the infamous Tonya Harding saga.(4 / 5)