So, confession. I had never heard of Tonya Harding before seeing this film… is that bad? Or does that just carbon date me?
I, Tonya is a biographical black dramedy directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and written by Steven Rogers (no not that Steve Rogers). It stars Margot Robbie as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding as she develops from talented youngster to star athlete and finally a world-wide headline in an event that is still debated today.
Burn After Reading meets figure-skating may be a good way to describe I, Tonya but it doesn’t do it justice. A Coens movie without the Coens, this is a stellar black dramedy that attempts to deconstruct the multiple truths surrounding an international news bonanza. How this film reconciles with those different accounts of reality is straightforward, but is incredibly effective in deconstructing the multiple interpretations around ‘the incident’. It never truly lands on its own interpretation, meaning every audience member can take ‘their own truth’ away from the event – something that is not only impressive but also incredibly appropriate considering the highly mediated nature of ‘the incident’ itself. My only major criticism of the structure is that one character in particular who plays a critical role in events is given less than two minutes screentime. Its an odd choice and makes the story feel a little incomplete, something that’s rather unfortunate considering how compelling proceedings are otherwise.
Much like the Coens as well, this film bounces between drama and comedy almost seamlessly. Making you laugh (quite regularly actually) and then cringe moments later really puts the equally absurd and sad life experiences Tonya herself has had to deal with. The skating sequences, brought to life by some rather convincing visual effects, even brings a sense of awe to the proceedings – unlike the broadcast presentation audiences would be used to, the camera dips and dives all around Tonya incredibly fluidly, lending a great sense of kinetic energy to the film’s most impressive set-pieces.
Speaking of impressive, Margot Robbie is a tour-de-force as Tonya Harding. After Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie appears to have rapidly taken over Hollywood, and here may be her best performance to date. Sympathetic, crass, complex and compelling are all words that could be used to describe Robbie, but essentially she not only embodies Harding but also the circumstances surrounding her so incredibly well that an Oscar win is sure to be in her sights either this year or down the line. Supporting her is another stellar performance from Allison Janney as Tonya’s crass and abusive mother. Much like Robbie she seems to be the frontrunner for the Oscar and its not hard to see why – she is almost unrecognisable as the supportive/horrifying parental figure consistent in Harding’s life. Other performances from Sebastian Stan and Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s husband and trainer respectively are also both solid, but they are both completely eclipsed by the dynamic duo of Robbie and Janney.
Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measures, I, Tonya is a spectacle of skating and performances that presents the Tonya Harding story decades after it peaked in a way that makes it relevant all over again. Aside from a seriously missed opportunity, I, Tonya is far beyond the generic biopic it could’ve been.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Highly Recommended