Review: I, Tonya (2017)
Approaching the story of this controversial athlete with a heady mix of pathos and humour, director Craig Gillespie captures the unapologetic spirit of Tonya through sporting set pieces, montage sequences and a truck load of frontality.
Gillespie demonstrated in the 2014 film Million Dollar Arm – an underrated Disney production starring Jon Hamm – that he could create a captivating story based around a sport, albeit for a very different audience. I, Tonya is not a conventional sports biopic, but then Tonya Harding is not a conventional ice skater. She’s a polarising, contentious character depicted in an extraordinary performance by Margot Robbie, who portrays her as a fifteen-year-old all the way into her forties. Never mind the technical ice skating she had to learn for the role, that’s some feat in itself. With this film, Gillespie has made a culturally significant spectacle even more cinematic.
Besides telling the story of such a disputable figure, Gillespie takes risks in this film in that he doesn’t shy away from social issues or ideas which might make some viewers uncomfortable. The audience are privy to not only the skating scandal committed by Tonya’s ‘bodyguard’, but also to her hard upbringing in Portland, her tempestuous relationship with her husband and the bullying she faced as a working class girl. Unlike the other figure skating princesses, Tonya drives a truck, parties hard and is poor. Her personality spills onto the ice: she is fearless and thrilling to watch, which is even more the case outside of the rink where she is bolshie, foul-mouthed and a sufferer of abject abuse. Several sequences have been edited so that, in the midst of a physical fight between Tonya and her partner, Jeff, the action slows and she speaks directly into the camera. Although the breaking of the fourth wall isn’t ground-breaking in itself, here it is used it such a way that the brutality and jarring toxicity of the relationship is heightened. The domestic violence that Tonya experiences is relentless – she returns to Jeff countless times – and it only adds to the sense of tragedy that surrounds her.
Alongside this, Tonya’s mother, Lavona Golden, provides an extra dose of pessimism and black humour, what with her hyper-criticism of Tonya and potty mouth full of scorn. In one of her first scenes, Lavona, played brilliantly by Allison Janney, is asked not to smoke on the ice by Tonya’s coach-to-be. Her response? “Okay. I’ll do it quietly.” Her bitter and crude comments are layered: at first the comic timing may prompt an immediate guffaw, but the realisation that her parental negligence will have an impact on Tonya’s own behaviour and sense of self-worth is actually rather heart-breaking.
The ambivalence surrounding the judgement of Tonya as a character is what makes this film so gripping. There is no question that she was an incredible figure skater fuelled by pure passion and raw talent. No other woman was brave enough to attempt the coveted triple axel, but nobody else competing at her level had to sew their own costumes either. Why isn’t being the best skater on the ice enough? Because, to the very end, her morality is questionable and her ‘presentation’ is scrutinised. On one hand, one may feel sympathy for the girl who had to skin rabbits so that she could have a fur coat just to fit in. She does anything in her power to prove that she is part of a ‘wholesome American family’, but it never seems to satisfy the additional criteria which only applies to her. All competitors are judged, but she seems to be judged more. On the other hand, her constant excuses (“It wasn’t my fault!” is a recurring phrase) and refusal to accept official decisions become tiresome. It's both exhausting and exhilarating to watch.
Amongst all the disorder and assaulting recklessness, this film also contains some beautiful skating set pieces. Margot Robbie is mesmerising on the ice and Gillespie has recreated numerous championship competitions, which meticulously mirror footage from the actual events: from the commentating, to the outfits, to the dialogue (short clips of Tonya are shown during the credits which repeat lines from the film word for word). Although institutional snobbery prevails, so does the beauty of the sport.
The storytelling is interspersed with a set of interviews with the characters involved in the attack on Tonya’s co-competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. This narrative mechanism allows the audience an insight into Tonya’s most recent reality, and it’s not a great one. She sits alone in a kitchen sporting a double denim outfit, smoking like a trooper, with piles of dirty dishes behind her - a far cry from the glamour and thrill of international competitions on the ice. However, her odd sense of humour and adamance remain as Robbie retells her side of the story with fluctuating fondness.
In an interview with James Corden on the Late Late Show, producer and star Margot Robbie explained how fearless Tonya was at the film premiere in going up to Meryl Streep for a photo, so it seems she still retains her gutsy approach to life. At the time of the scandal, Tonya didn’t only have to fight with higher powers about her involvement in the assault of Kerrigan (with very little know-how since she ditched education to dedicate all her time to skating), she also had to deal with being globally vilified in the press. Tonya states that ‘everyone has their own truth’, and with this arguably more favourable portrayal of this chapter in her life, as an audience we are left to question whether Tonya’s truth was a deserved one or not.
Verdict: Margot Robbie shines her brightest as an abused figure skater in this innovative tragi-comedy sports biopic. The tragic parts are dark and comedic parts are darker, but don't feel bad for laughing because Tonya herself probably couldn't care less anymore.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡
Director: Craig Gillespie
UK release date: 23rd February 2018