If you’d asked me what I knew about Tonya Harding, I would probably have replied, ‘Wasn’t she that American ice-skater who broke her rival’s leg, pre-competition?’ Which is precisely the kind of media misinformation addressed by this rough and ribald drama. I, Tonya centres on the incident in which Harding’s husband arranged to have Nancy Kerrigan taken out of the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships by nefarious means. The movie doesn’t defend Harding, nor does it pass particular judgement on whatever role she may have played in the attack (no leg was broken, but the injury to Kerrigan was brutal nonetheless). It presents the truth, in fact, as decidedly muddy – a strategy as frustrating as it is fascinating.
The film, it should be said, is about more than the so-called ‘incident’. It’s the story of an anomaly – a self-labelled redneck girl with a bolshy attitude, making her way in that most prim of sports, ice-skating. Her angst is fuelled by two relationships – with her pathologically ambitious mother and volatile first husband. The movie’s narrative is based on real-life (and mutually contradictory) interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, both characters speaking regularly on camera to question the truth of what we have just witnessed. The result is a turbulent ride, as Harding’s astonishing talent does battle with both outside influences and her own fiery nature.
I, Tonya is more than anything a complex character study, and it thrives on the grit of its central performances. Margot Robbie (most recently seen in Goodbye, Christopher Robin) is truly impressive as Harding, well worthy of her Best Actress Oscar Nomination. She plays the eponymous Tonya from a raucous fifteen years old, through the turmoil of her years in competition to the sardonic thirty-something looking back at it all. Whatever level of ice-skating expertise she achieved, the scenes are edited seamlessly, Robbie capturing the zest and rebellious spirit that enthralled audiences and antogonised judges.
Sebastian Stan is also fine as the angry and bewildered Jeff, unrecognisable from his Bucky Barnes role in the Captain Americamovies (well I didn’t recognise him at any rate). There’s a shiftiness to both him and Harding throughout, so that we don’t entirely trust either of these unreliable narrators. And speaking of untrustworthy, The West Wing‘s Allison Janney is utterly transformed as Harding’s bitter chain-smoking mother LaVonda. Think a wildly over-zealous skating mom with a bitter redneck twist and you’re someway to visualising the kind of viciousness portrayed here. Again, her Best Supporting Oscar nom is a no-brainer. If this film is about anything, it’s about types of relationship dysfunction – and the mother-daughter dynamic here is jaw-dropping in its destructive nature.
This is a tough-minded film with an unflinching portrayal of domestic violence, both physical and psychological. It’s also full of grim humour, much of which stems from the relationship between Jeff and his deluded friend and co-conspirator Shawn. (Paul Walter Hauser sheds all dignity in an unflattering and painfully funny performance). If the movie has a flaw it’s the amount of time the story takes to wrap, once the ‘incident’ has played out. Since the screenplay is reluctant to pass final judgement on Harding, it would benefit from seriously tightening up the denouement.
Whatever the truth behind I, Tonya‘s conflicting accounts, this is a bleak tale with nary a flicker of redemption. Reports that Tonya Harding is treated too sympathetically are overstated; the film’s tone is far too frank for that, the story too laden with ambiguity. It cuts through the media bullshit surrounding the events, but leaves key questions unanswered. Nancy Kerrigan was demonstrably a victim of the whole affair, while her opponent remains inscrutable. The girl from the underclass background, who almost made good. Whether guilty or innocent, Tonya’s story is a kind of American tragedy.
Gut Reaction: Engrossed for the most part – alternately appalled and amused. And left feeling a bit tainted at the end.
Where Are the Women?: In the forefront and your face. As I post this review, Alison Janney is probably still celebrating her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Ed’s Verdict: 7.5/10. A successfully dark and edgy comedy-drama, with terrific performances throughout. But as a trawl through the murkier aspects of our humanity, it’s the very opposite of uplifting.