A purposefully glossy, fictionalised account of disgraced US ice skater Tonya Harding, whose rise and fall become an international scandal in the 1990s, I, Tonya’s tone jumps between black comedy and spoof documentary. The opening declares it’s “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews”, while Tonya (Margot Robbie) constantly breaks the fourth wall to tell audiences this outrageous backstory might not be entirely true, but always makes for a good story.
Born into a poor Portland family, Harding’s childhood is a brutal one thanks to abusive mother LaVona (Alison Janney). The West Wing actress is undoubtedly the highlight, snarling at her child with a sharp tongue and sharper backhand. Even when teen Tonya finds someone to marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastien Stan), her life as a victim doesn’t stop and the beatings are almost delivered as comedy, with the unusual tone making the violence an uncomfortable viewing experience.
Harding went from Olympic fame to infamy in 1994 after becoming implicated in an attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan, who was set upon during practice by a man who broke her knee with a police baton. I, Tonya barely acknowledges Kerrigan as her own character, however, which feels like a mistake that forces audiences to see Harding as the more endearing of the two.
I, Tonya has a lot to say about the media and unreliable narrators. The young Tonya will say one thing before it’s contradicted by an older Tonya in an interview-style cut away. This narrative device allows the characters to own their own story and guide audiences through it, creating real sympathy for Tonya when talking about class; as Kerrigan is represented as being an example of the middle class American Dream who discarded Tonya when she was young.
The vacillating tone lets the film down slightly, as there’s really no reason for the filmmakers to but a comic spin on an interesting drama about class divisions and the country’s fascination with making heroes of villains.
There’s little about Harding (from her childhood, to her being labelled white trash by the press by the age of 23, that’s funny), even if it’s described as a black comedy. The cast are uniformly excellent, however. Robbie is very good despite being too old, too pretty, and too small to capture Tonya’s physicality, but she does have the pearly white grin and blind fury that embodies the controversial Olympian. Sebastien Stan’s also at his best playing her husband Jeff, whose blind devotion for Tonya often turned into rage; and BAFTA-winning Janney steals the show with her unique brand of tough mother’s love.
This film will be polarising for those who want to see a roast of Tonya Harding, because she’s painted in a sympathetic light throughout. There’s one angle on the story that shows Tonya as a victim, but with a wink that indicates the truth is elusive. I, Tonya isn’t about whether Harding was involved in Kerrigan’s attack, but a portrait of America at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of becoming famous through notoriety.
Cast & Crew
director: Craig Gillespie.
writer: Steven Rogers.
starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson & Bobby Cannavale.