I, Tonya (2017) Words
You may think you know the infamous story of Tonya Harding and the 1994 attack on her figure skating Olympic teammate Nancy Kerrigan, but ‘I, Tonya’ is a reminder that as familiar we may be with that incident, no one really knows the full story. It’s a fierce portrayal of the highs and lows of life, the pressure and elitism of professional figure skating and the humour and horror of human behaviour. Written by Steven Rogers (‘Stepmom’, ‘P.S. I Love You’) and directed by Craig Gillespie (‘Lars and the Real Girl’), ‘I, Tonya’ is a darkly sympathetic portrait of the disgraced Olympian, led by a live-wire performance from Margot Robbie. Achingly funny at times, it always finds the humour in its real-life story whilst never losing sight of its more tragic moments.
The tragicomedy opens with a title card that reads: “The events of this film are based on irony free, wildly contradictory, and totally true interviews.” Framed with recreations of recent documentary interviews and fourth-wall breaking commentary, we are introduced to Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) a violent small town loser; her monstrous mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney); coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson); and delusional “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).
Four years on from her break-out supporting turn in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, Robbie’s performance as Harding is the star-making role she deserves and the highlight of her career thus far. She exudes all of the desperation, sadness, anger and disappointment Harding faced. Robbie’s performance doesn’t ask us to love or even forgive Harding, but simply to empathise and understand her. Robbie’s face radiates in the close-ups of the wonderfully recreated skating scenes, only somewhat let down by dodgy CGI face-replacement.
‘I, Tonya’ loses its momentum when it finally ‘hits’ the Nancy Kerrigan incident. Styled with a Coen-esque flourish, it mostly crashes with the exception of a scene-stealing performance from Hauser as Gillooly’s conspiracy-theorist friend who orchestrates the attack.
Nancy Kerrigan was figure skating’s darling long before her attack, because Harding didn’t fit the mould. Harding was painted as “trailer trash,” her music choices and homemade costumes marked her as working-class and unrefined, which was clearly a problem for the professional skating community. Looking to promote a wholesome, ballerina-like female ideal, they didn’t want the frizzy haired girl from Portland, Oregon. After Harding became the first American woman to complete a triple axel and delivered record-breaking performances at the U.S. and World Championships in 1991, they were forced to recognise her.
While the film is overly long, Robbie and Janney are both electric, particularly in their sadly too few scenes together, portraying the kind of messy and complicated relationship not usually seen in biopics of women. Harding believed skating was the path to achieving the love and respect that was missing from her personal life and thanks to the skittish zing Robbie brings to her, she is not a calculated jealous competitor, but a survivor, physically and mentally abused by the people who were supposed to love her and rejected by the profession that judged her based on her appearance and background, and finally from everyone who watched it play out in the media - “You’re all my attackers too,” she says to the audience.