REVIEW: I, Tonya
Running Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: 23rd February 2018
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson
Written by: Steven Rogers
Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
``Something close to a masterpiece``
The rise and fall of Olympic skater Tonya Harding would still be a major story if it happened in today’s blink-and-you-miss-it news cycle. That the story happened to coincide with the dawn of Fox, Sky and the 24 hour rolling news channel gave the scandal a peculiar scrutiny. Harding’s downfall was devoured in a media frenzy and played out in front of the world. For a brief period in the mid-nineties, hating Harding was a national pastime.
The facts are these: In the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by Shane Stant after a training session in Detroit. Harding (Margot Robbie) was competing with Kerrigan for a place on the US Olympic team, and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) was ultimately convicted for planning the attack. Harding’s role in the assault – or when and how much she knew about it – is more of a grey area. One which I, Tonya refuses to definitively answer.
If you’re looking for truth, go read a book. I, Tonya plays fast and loose with the facts and is all the more entertaining for it. Based on “wildly contradictory, totally true” events, the film mixes to-camera sit-downs with the key players with fourth wall-breaking reconstructions of events which may or may not have happened. The effect is exhilarating. Once again, journeyman director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) goes straight for the leanest cuts on the carcass. The whole thing bristles with kinetic energy from start to finish. But don’t worry, I, Tonya is as much about ice skating as Foxcatcher is about wrestling.
Harding is incapable of sentimentality, although there is still the hint of watching “a cheap holiday in someone else’s misery”. She never paints herself as a victim in this whole sorry mess, but a victim she certainly was.
First, she was a victim of class. In this drama Kerrigan was cast as the all American princess and Harding as the villain – a white trash class tourist jealous of her competitors’ success. But most of all Harding was the victim of her own poor judgement.
Some of these circumstances were of her own making (“You fuck dumb. You don’t marry dumb” goes her mother’s unheeded advice), but when Harding arrived at what should have been the apex of her career, she was the epicentre of a perfect storm of utter stupidity. The Russian doll-style layers of ineptitude that Harding had wrapped herself in all started to come apart at once. First there was Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the possessive, abusive ex. Then came self-styled bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (a brilliant Paul Walter Hauser), a fantasist too dumb to talk and blink at the same time.
All the while in the background is LaVona (Allison Janney), Harding’s ball-breaking horror show of a mother. LaVona wields motherhood like a weapon loaded with six rounds of psychological torture. Janney is simply immense, chewing up everything in her path and spitting it out with tobacco-stained phlegm. The part should come with a government health warning. It’s a role that actors would kill (or at least break a leg) for. And like driving past a car crash; it’s horrifying, but you can’t help looking.
As Harding, Robbie finally has a role where she gets to prove herself. This is easily the finest performance of her career. She delivers on the promise previously hinted at but never realised. Through gritted teeth and steely determination, Robbie disappears into the role until there is only Tonya.
Gillespie has sidestepped a minefield of biopic tropes and delivered something close to a masterpiece. Better filmmakers have made much less with far meatier material than this. I, Tonya is a deliciously twisted dramedy with acerbic cynicism running through its veins. If all biopics were this good, I wouldn’t hate them so much.