Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser
Running time: 119 minutes
Under the brutal parenting techniques of her mother, the plucky, competitive Tonya Harding (Robbie) makes her way up the US figure skating ladder to become one of the country’s best. Along the way, reputation and an abusive marriage to childhood sweetheart Jeff Gillooly (Stan) hands her the role of proverbial pantomime villain – a label cemented in the eyes of the nation by public allegations of foul-play in the lead up to the 1994 Olympic Games.
So, when it comes to figure skating, the only thing worse than my knowledge of it is my ability with a pair of blades. I, Tonya – the latest from Australian director Craig Gillespie – does very little to help either cause. What it does do, however, is offer up a frantic, whacky, two-hour delve into the life of infamous US Olympian Tonya Harding, as she skates on some rather thin ice, during a short-lived professional career thawed out by controversy.
Before anything else in I, Tonya – barely have we had time to organise the snacks and assume the appropriate screen-watching position – we’re informed that what we are about to see is based on a set of “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews with disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. And with that, Gillespie’s precedent is set: a reminder that despite the outlandish turns the film takes, the truth – and everyone’s own version of it, of course – is in there somewhere.
What follows is an unreliably narrated account of the rise and fall of one of America’s most notable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons sporting figures in all its over-the-top madness and hyperbolic glory, as young Tonya Harding is thrust from rabbit-hunting daddy’s girl to a fierce, rebellious ball of fire on ice – courtesy of the best worst mother this side of Norma Bates, in the form of a formidably foul-mouthed Allison Janney. And from there, an abuse-filled childhood turns to an abuse-filled marriage as Harding and Gillooly’s fleeting scenes of early romance quickly transform into a relationship of chaos, dysfunction, and ultimately, global scandal.
This is the barely-believable biopic that’s brushed with the broad licks of a certain New York howling mammal (ironically, the film that launched Margot Robbie’s career), complete with dark, distasteful humour, Spotify overkill soundtrack, and, of course, some good ol’ fourth wall breaking. And Robbie’s Harding is I, Tonya’s answer to Leo’s Jordan Belfort, as her addiction to a different kind of white stuff paves the way for all manner of character – and viewer allegiance – figure-eighting.
I,dentity is the name of the game here, and, even if the film as a whole is never quite sure of what it wants to be, Gillespie works into his film interesting and often conflicting versions of Harding throughout. At times, we’re invited to admire her drive and defiant individuality – “You want to give me $5,000 for an outfit so I don’t have to make one?” she remarks to a figure skating judge who suggests she doesn’t quite fit the specific ‘look’ they’re after. At others, she’s repugnant and repulsive – “suck my d**k” she berates the very same judge just seconds later.
As the film’s title neatly captures, I, Tonya is a film all about names, all about labels, all about presentation. And Harding encapsulates them all. She is both victim and villain; darling and monster; product and anomaly. She’s sporting prowess crippled by a combination of herself, those around her, and a media obsessed culture that loves having someone to hate. The question then for us is this: do we also love to hate? Or do we hate to love? Gillespie’s film asks us to do both.
Despite this, however, many of the supporting players – namely Janney’s LaVona and Hauser’s Shawn Eckhardt – come largely as pre-packaged one-dimensional caricatures: exaggerated character carvings that ultimately brush up as cheap Coen knock-offs. And while both performances – particularly Janney -hit the intended comedic spots and the intended times – and despite the film’s attempts at some additional character padding by means of retrospective docu-style interviews – they are little more than one-trick ponies.
Stan’s Gillooly is given much finer strokes, as his emotional instability and oddly obsessive allegiance to Harding gives his character a deeper complexity and intrigue. There’s surprisingly very little of Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan to piece together, though – other than the shards of her patella once it meets the business end of a police baton, that is. Their rivalry is a disappointing omission; one which, if even remotely explored, would return a narrative climax substantially more impactful than the one we end up with.
But this truly is the Margot Robbie show; and save for the ill-advised decision to introduce her as a 15-year old Harding, Robbie is largely magnificent – confidently playing off sweetheart and sinister with convincing seamlessness. Sceptics might question the film’s portrayal of red neck culture and domestic abuse – and rightly so – but few can deny that Robbie owns each and every frame she’s in, both on and off the ice, as she launches herself into the entire spectrum of emotion with a performance that is rightly deserving of Academy recognition.
A perfect 6.0 in places, and messy in others, I, Tonya might not garner a podium finish; but it has enough fire in the belly, enough spunk, and enough heartbreak and tragedy to make it a memorable time on the ice.