Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya chooses the perfect time, and the perfect leading lady, to bring to the big screen the stranger-than-fiction tale of Tonya Harding’s precipitous rise and fall within the world of figure skating.
Hollywood loves to plumb the depths of history to find unknown stories and forgotten characters with which to stuff their blockbusters. In the case of I, Tonya however, the subject matter is one of the most well-known scandals of the 90s, with Margot Robbie portraying Tonya Harding, an Olympic figure skater who was banned for life from the sport for her part in an attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan.
Releasing in the UK just over 24 years since the notorious event, I, Tonya is constructed around dramatizations of real-life interviews with Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and a cast of other colourful characters. The film kicks off with an opening credits disclaimer that these accounts are ‘irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true’, an early suggestion that even having watched the film, you may not be sure that you know the ‘true story’ of Tonya Harding.
Treading a familiar path for a sports movie, the movie shows Harding’s journey from gifted four-year-old to the Olympic ice rink, complete with setbacks and hardship. Harding is not your typical figure skater, an impoverished girl from a ‘white trash’ family competing in an expensive sport, she dances to ZZ Top rather than Puccini and hunts rabbits, which her mother skins and makes into her skating outfits. The skating community is unwilling to accept Harding and judges mark her harshly during competitions. These are common story beats within an underdog story, but by going deeper into Harding’s off-rink life I, Tonya hits on interesting characters and rich seams of comedy and tragedy, much more compelling than the trope-y, generic sports movie structure.
Harding’s mother LaVona Golden for example, an absolute scene-stealer thanks to the performance of Allison Janney, is truly, truly horrible. Tall, thin and shrouded with faux-fur, Golden is a furious, barking blur of cigarettes and swear words, both seeming endless, who works tirelessly to belittle and bully Tonya while also sewing all of her costumes and driving her across the country. Janney flexes an acid tongue, coming out with some spectacularly blunt lines – “you skated like a graceless bull dyke. I felt sorry for you” – and a great deal of the movie’s jet-black humour comes from these exclamations. The balance between the horror and the humour is well-managed, and sums up the overall tonal contrast throughout the rest of the film.
Margot Robbie is also phenomenal as Harding. Armed with a powerful 90s fringe and a denim jacket, she imbues ‘current-day’ Tonya with bitterness and venom, and makes the younger Harding driven, desperate and vulnerable. Without this performance anchoring the film, I, Tonya could become bogged down in seeking the truth of the events. In actual fact, the film’s defining tenet is spoken by Tonya: “there is no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth”. The contradiction of the character’s respective interviews speaks to this, with Harding claiming to be a blameless victim, Golden saying that Tonya should be grateful for the way her mother treated her and Sebastian Stan’s Jeff Gillooly swearing that he never beat Tonya, despite contradictory evidence. This is a film where every character is an unreliable narrator, and the doubt that this weaves into the story allows for I, Tonyato ascend past a generic sports film or biopic.
Pre-conceived ideas be damned, I, Tonya gives a fresh coat of paint to one of the most ogled scandals in sporting history. The performances of Robbie and Janney should be reason enough to give the film your time, but the film delivers snappy writing, an excellent supporting cast and one of the most bizarre true stories you’ll ever see on screen.
I, Tonya is released on the 23rd February 2018.