With excellent work from Margot Robbie and the ensemble cast, I, Tonya skates a line between drama, comedy and bio-pic, frequently breaking the fourth-wall and confronting the uncomfortable topic of domestic violence.
This biopic-of-sorts from Sydney-born director Craig Gillespie (still best-known for Lars And The Real Girl) features a startling and scary performance from Margot Robbie and moments of uncomfortably desperate, even despairing comedy, and it must be reasonably close to the truth as Tonya Harding herself enjoyed it, although whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable.
It’s also more than a little interesting that Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers didn’t instead give us the events in the life of Nancy Kerrigan (I, Nancy?), Harding’s rival who of course got kneecapped. Instead we’re told the story of Tonya and those closest to her, even if much of it is only their own conflicting versions of ‘The Facts’, making this a kind of redneck Rashomon.
A series of contemporary mock-interviews open the film as Tonya (Robbie, who helped produce), her formidably foul-mouthed mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), her hopeless ex-husband Jeff Gilloly (Sebastian Stan) and others reflect upon their lives and set into motion the flashbacking narrative.
LaVona is seen pushing the four year old Tonya into figure skating somewhere in the ‘70s to the tune of Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman. Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at first thinks Tonya’s too young, but then sees real talent and agrees to take her on, while the cruel LaVona insults everyone and is, at one point, caught slapping her daughter. This is the first of several times where domestic abuse is shown and the previously funny tone turns uneasily real. We’re reminded that while LaVona is presented as horribly amusing (and Janney plays her with fearsome relish), she’s really a monster.
Tonya trains like Hell and becomes one of the best figure skaters in the US. When she marries the gormless Jeff, her first real boyfriend, LaVona doesn’t approve. Tonya might not either, as soon all the fun and sexy excitement has worn off and he’s beating her too, as their on-off-on-off-on-off relationship drags on.
Tonya also becomes the first female figure skater to perform two triple axel jumps, yet the judges always give her a hard time, reputedly for her homemade apparel and choice of musical accompaniment (like ZZ Top’s Sleeping Bag). But Tonya knows it’s because she’s white trash, and the make-up department have their work cut out for them making Robbie look rough, although their use of wigs apparently soaked in beer is pretty effective.
When we get down to the supposedly misunderstood details of what happened behind the scenes in the attack on Kerrigan in 1994, the harsh humour evaporates and Tonya’s dim-witted bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) gets involved, as death threats are misinterpreted and actual violence is carried out.
Helped greatly by a wonderfully tawdry soundtrack of ‘70s/‘80s hits often used in daring contexts (Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, Heart’s Barracuda, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger, Bad Company’s Shooting Star and Laura Branigan’s Gloria), this offers fine work from Robbie, Janney, Stan, Hauser and Bobby Cannavale as Martin Maddox, a muck-raker from TV’s Hard Copy. Gillespie’s breaking of the fourth-wall is also inspired, as perhaps there’s no other way to tell Tonya’s tale, and if it was done straight we might have never believed it.
Rated MA. I, Tonya is in cinemas now.