I, Tonya

Review by Hannah Woodhead @goodjobliz

Directed by

Craig Gillespie

Starring

Allison Janney Margot Robbie Sebastian Stan

Anticipation.

Big story, bigger hair. Gillespie has providence, and Robbie is a delight.

Enjoyment.

Skates around some dark subject matter with a bizarre amount of whimsy.

In Retrospect.

An attempt was made, but Gillespie botches the landing.

Margot Robbie shines in an engaging Tonya Harding biopic that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

There was a time, as strange at it might seem today, when gure skating was a sport that America took very seriously. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the likes of Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan were household names – but no skater ever achieved infamy like Tonya Harding. Following an assault on her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan, allegedly planned and carried out at the behest of Harding’s bumbling ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, she was banned from professional skating for life. After fascinating the public for years and spawning documentaries, books and Simpsons parodies, Harding’s story has found its way to the big screen thanks to director Craig Gillespie and star/ executive producer Margot Robbie.

Based on conflicting interviews, contemporary video footage, and a healthy dose of conjecture, I, Tonya is a biopic interlaced with present day mock-interviews which leans heavily on the idea of an unreliable narrator. Taking overt stylistic cues from previous Robbie projects The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street, there’s a brash dynamism to the film, which examines Tonya’s turbulent upbringing and personal life, ‘The Incident’ which ended her career, and the lasting impact for almost all parties involved.

Conspicuously absent from the story is Tonya’s alleged victim Nancy Kerrigan, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering the title of the film and the unapologetically selfish nature of its subject, but it seem strange to silence such a key voice, and the trend within cinema to focus more on the perpetrator of a crime than the ramifications for the victim is problematic.

Even so, Robbie does a solid job of capturing the complex character of Harding, pirouetting from vulnerability to volatility on a dime. Yet she is trumped by Allison Janney’s marvellous turn as the machiavellian matriarch LaVona Golden. Her performance as Tonya’s chain smoking, negligent mother – who is utterly devoid of warmth even in a film where the ice is a central character – might be cartoonish, but it’s compelling in its unpleasantness.

Robbie and Janney are joined by playing-against-type Sebastian Stan as Tonya’s useless husband Gillooly, and Paul Walter Hauser as Jeff’s even more inept best friend Shawn Eckhardt, as well as a perma-tanned Bobby Cannavale who pops up as a reporter to provide context and outsider conjecture on the Harding case. The casting feels like the most realised aspect of the film, but it’s not enough to carry the weight of such a complex story.

The ashes of interesting commentary about the inherent classism in the professional ice skating world, as well as the cult of the true crime celebrity in the 1980s, point to the darkness that lies at the centre of the story. But Gillespie’s flippant biopic leans too heavily into lightness. Not only does it remain oddly silent on Kerrigan, but it feels flippant about domestic abuse, with Harding’s violent relationships with both her mother and husband frequently played off as pantomime slapstick.

It’s a mishandled attempt at finding order in chaos, leaning heavily on sympathy for an unsympathetic lead. It’s ultimately confused about what it wants to say about the consequences of Harding’s actions.

Published 21 Feb 2018

Tags: Allison Janney Margot Robbie

Anticipation.

Big story, bigger hair. Gillespie has providence, and Robbie is a delight.

Enjoyment.

Skates around some dark subject matter with a bizarre amount of whimsy.

In Retrospect.

An attempt was made, but Gillespie botches the landing.

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