The story of competitive ice skater Tonya Harding was a major news story that was hard to avoid, and yet, up until now, hasn’t been given the Hollywood treatment, but boy is it a narrative deserving of one. With Craig Gillespie at the helm, we delve into this incredible set of events, while also offering a study of working class American culture, focusing in on a skater who was a fish out of water, as a film that offers so much more than just ‘the incident’.
Tonya (Margot Robbie) was raised under the tyrannical rule of her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), who did everything she could to ensure her daughter would become a professional ice skater. The working class girl was unlike her peers, mostly from affluent backgrounds, she always had to do more than necessary to prove herself as an athlete worthy of going to the Olympic games. She married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) at a young age, and their tempestuous relationship led to domestic violence. And that’s not the only violence he was behind either, as he liaised with his old friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) as the two concocted a dastardly plan to help further Tonya’s career. But instead sought only in destroying it.
I, Tonya marks a challenging balance act for Gillespie, tasked with bringing together a whole myriad of themes, with two destructive relationships at the core of the tale, one between Tonya and her husband, and the other with her mother, that could so easily have been the paramount focus – and yet instead we move seamlessly between different narratives and never compromise on any of them. There’s also an indelible, comedic edge to this title, and while at times it can be to the film’s detriment, perhaps devaluing the domestic abuse, or the ending of certain careers – the film thrives in its light touch. There could be a very distressing, profound film to be made here, but we saw with Lovelace, which was bleak and sombre in its approach that it doesn’t necessarily lead to great cinema. Instead, I, Tonya carries a more playful energy that enriches the experience.
Robbie turns in a career best performance too, which had been needed after a string of somewhat underwhelming cinematic endeavours. But she is truly excellent here, with such a nuanced role to get her teeth stuck into, and one she brings to life in emphatic fashion, always maintaining that vulnerability to compliment Tonya’s unnervingly committed demeanour. The effects too are impressive, with the skating sequences extremely authentic in their depiction.
The editing too impresses, as we move between the story being told and talking head interviews purported to be from the future, with the lead characters looking back over the set of events, almost narrating the piece as we witness the moments they set-up for us. There’s also a breaking of the fourth wall too, which works. It’s certainly not ‘Margot Robbie in the bubble bath’ from The Big Short, which was a horrendous inclusion, but it is Margot Robbie all the same, and with a performance this good, in a film so tonally spot-on – it works for her in a way it most certainly hadn’t in the past.
I, Tonya is released in cinemas across the UK on February 23rd.