Dir. Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, and Bobby Cannavale.
Being a Brit born after the events that take place in the film, I knew nothing about Tonya Harding until I saw the first trailer for this film. I’m not a particularly big figure skating fan, or someone who watches the Olympic every year. The subject matter of the movie, couldn’t be further from my interests. Lucky for me then, that none of that matters. In the same way that Rocky isn’t really about the boxing, this is a sports biopic way more interested in the characters than the actual sport. This is helped largely through the talking heads interviews, where if a character says they were the best figure skater in the world, you believe them, without the film having to put too much effort in showing you. The fact that these talking heads are wildly untrustworthy is all part of the films fun.
The film is based on interviews with Tonya Harding, and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, played respectively by Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan. They have too very different points of view about what happened in their time together, and the film does its best to piece together a cohesive narrative which incorporates them all. It’s the story of how Tonya Harding came through an abusive relationship with her mum, LaVona, played by Allison Janney, and perhaps an abusive husband, to become one of the best figure skaters in America, on her way to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Her life is turned upside down when her husband Jeff intervenes, and one of her competitors, Nancy Kerrigan is the victim of an assault.
I really enjoyed I, Tonya. It’s the kind of all absorbing movie you can just lean back and fall in love with. The film does a great job of building this time and place, early 90’s Portland, and placing you slap bang in the middle of it. The production design is great, the choice of music is toe-tappingly good, and it’s filled with characters you want to know more about. The Scorsese-esque direction and editing lends the film a kinetic energy, at least for the first 2/3rds of the movie, which propels you along the story at such a pace it’s impossible to get bored. The pace also comes with a light touch in direction, the film is incredibly funny even when dealing with darker subject matter. The performances are universally good as well. It’s nice to see Sebastian Stan shine away from the Marvel franchise, and Allison Janney is great, although with all the hype surrounding her performance I thought her role would have been a bit more demanding. The true standout here is Margot Robbie, producing here as well as starring, it’s a knockout performance which cements her place as a true female lead. It speaks to both the neutral approach that Gillespie took in directing the film, and Robbie’s performance that you can’t help but feel sympathy for Tonya by the end, even though the events that took place were so morally reprehensible.
I think the reason I liked the film so much, is that it’s not really about figure skating. It’s a film that explores the ideas of truth. The talking heads being interviewed, agree on certain aspects of events, but disagree wildly on others. Tonya says Jeff was abusive towards her, and Jeff says he never hit her. The film is called I, Tonya though so we see everything through Tonya’s point of view, which in this case means we see Jeff being constantly abusive, and we cut to him telling us this is all false. This style though is used to point the finger at us, and our obsession with celebrity culture, and the 24hr news cycle. It asks us to question believing everything we are told. The film also explores themes of class, Harding is an unapologetic red neck, trying to compete in a world which is all about appearance and class. In one emotional scene we are told she won’t make the Olympics because the board want her to have a wholesome American family. Heartbreakingly she asks why it can’t just be about the skating, the irony is that it’s her viewership draw that allows her to go to the Olympics.
The film does falter a little bit after “the incident” takes place. It loses some of its pace, and starts to drag a little bit. Like a lot movies, this film could have lost half an hour of its runtime. We also see Margot Robbie taking a lot of abuse, which obviously has the intention of normalising the violence for the audience in the same way the abuse became normal for her, but I felt it was a little over done. The film does present us with the idea that it’s showing all the sides to the story, but it largely leans into supporting Tonya Harding, not necessarily supporting what happened, but being behind her as a person. We generally hear from people who like Tonya, even Jeff comes across as remorseful. There’s a reason we don’t get a Nancy Kerrigan talking head.
I enjoyed I, Tonya a lot. It’s a kinetic, fast paced biopic, which made me interested in an event and a sport which I had no previous interest in. It’s filled with memorable characters, and great performances. Janney is getting all the press, but it’s Robbie’s film from start to finish. It’s a film which sets out to explore the truth, but you can’t help but feel manipulated by it. It’s stylish, fun, and well put together. You just have to take everything with a grain of salt.