I, Tonya (2017, USA, d. Craig Gillespie, 119 minutes)
Anyone who was alive in the early 90’s remembers the giant scandal involving figure skater, Tonya Harding, and the vicious attack against fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan. In a time when Figure Skating and Reality drama couldn’t be more popular, this scandal rocked not just the skating world, but the nation itself. Helmed by director, Craig Gillespie (Lars & the Real Girl, The Finest Hours), I, Tonya isn’t a story focused about that scandal, but rather a full-fledged biopic of Tonya Harding and a damn fine one at that.
Structured around modern day interviews of the people involved, I, Tonya tells the story of Tonya Harding, disgraced figure skater of the 1990’s. We see her from early childhood, such as her first time skating, where her abusive, cigarette-clinging mother (Allison Janney) forces her on the ice, to meeting her soon-to-be husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), to her time as the top skater, and eventually to her ultimate fate, regarding “the incident”. I, Tonya tackles all these events and somehow manages to feel fresh, funny and even sometimes bizarre.
All accolades first and foremost go to director, Craig Gillespie, as well as writer, Steven Rogers. There is a lot of moving parts and tones in this film, that Gillespie and Rogers manage to pull off, expertly. Dealing with domestic violence, parental abuse and the vicious assault of a young girl are not things to make light of, but I, Tonya somehow pulls off it’s tonal shifts will ease. The approach to the film feels like a mix between Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. This is a film where characters break the 4th wall, are treated like human beings, despite most not being very smart, features a kick-ass soundtrack and makes you root for characters you otherwise wouldn’t dare feel anything for. This is Goodfellas, but with figure skating.
Margot Robbie gives the performance of a lifetime as Tonya Harding. Robbie manages to pull off a tricky balance with her character. She easily could’ve come off as mocking or playing it as a joke, but she plays Harding with the utmost sincerity, that by the end of the film, you’re actually rooting for her. We witness the deconstruction of her character and without a great performance, the audience would get none of the emotional impact that’s brought to screen.
Harding is presented as a tragic figure who got dealt the wrong hand. We witness how she becomes a product of her mother and falls victim to the most drama-crazed culture of its time (this was the big scandal before the OJ trials). She’s certainly not perfect, as shown by her numerous outbursts in front of and behind the ice, but Robbie’s portrayal of Harding becomes of the most compelling leads in a film all year.
Allison Janney is the real show-stopper, however. She’s consistently foul, hardened and tough beyond the point of overbearing. With such lines directed towards Jeff like “are you a gardner or a flower?” or yelling at her then six year-old daughter why she can’t be more like a true athlete. Janney completely transforms herself and runs off with every scene she’s in.
Sebastian Stan as Jeff, Tonya’s ex-husband, is also top-notch. Despite scenes between him and Robbie being some of the darkest in the film, Stan is never one-note and brings new layers to this must maligned real-life figure.
Although not a focal point of the film, the skating sequences are incredibly done. Similar to 2015’s Creed, these sequences are shot with fluid, long takes with exquisite camera work, that put you right on the ice with Tonya. Despite a couple moments of noticeable CG, the effects are practically seamless, making you feel that Robbie is actually performing all the moves herself.
With a slightly long runtime of 119 minutes, the pacing towards the third act begins to stall a bit, particularly involving the build-up of “the incident”, which somehow manages to be the least interesting thing in the movie. The film moves at such a brisk pace that once things begin to slow down, it feels jarring. The film only now got picked up by a distributor, so maybe before the film comes out, a few edits will be made.
I, Tonya is one of the most ferociously entertaining and hysterical films of the year. This is an extremely well-rounded film with Oscar-worthy performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, that challenges you to re-think what you thought you knew about the story.