Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser
Runtime: 119 Minutes
There are certain moments in recent history – particularly as portrayed by the media – where sometimes it really does feel like things might seem either clearer or better when given the hindsight of distance. I, Tonya might be the new gold standard for this saying, specifically in regard to the subjectivity of the biopic.
Although a biographical picture concerning the life, rise to fame and fall from grace of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), presented through dramatisation and featuring mockumentary-style interviews with the characters reflecting on the events of the past, this is a film very much aware of the fact that a majority of audiences will find their interests solely fixated on the infamous incident for which she is now infamously known; that being the 1994 attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) orchestrated by her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).
The film ultimately chooses to land its feet in the grounds of sympathy with Harding, sidelining Kerrigan’s existence as a three-dimensional character in one of its weaker aspects. But so much of the reason why I, Tonya works so damn well isn’t because of its rewriting of history, but because of its reframing of a story that the media of the time span into a binary argument and villainization of a renowned and controversial figure of attention.
Delving right back into her childhood being brought up by her mother, LaVona Fay Golden (played by a fiercely game Allison Janney), the story explores the cycles of abuse that formed the backbone of her gruff and physical personality both on and off the ice at the hands of both her mother and former husband. Alongside this come the prejudices toward her upbringing and class status, as well as her position as a woman and her unconventionality as a feminine presence in the sport.
Though there is no firm foundation for the narrative to be based on, Steven Rogers’ screenplay uses this to its advantage as a way of making a subjective series of events and backstories intensely engaging and dramatic. Drawing from accounts of both Harding and Eckhardt from separate interviews, it paints a picture of torment and viciousness toward Harding by her closest family members in ways explained and unexplained.
This is where its intentions come to the forefront, as the film turns its gaze toward the audience and firmly locks itself down as it dismantles and stares down those sitting in the theatre both figuratively and literally in one of the films many moments of fourth wall breaking clarity. A majority of those paying to see the spectacle of the media circus playing out once again in a cinematic presentation will find themselves judged as much as abusers as her physical ones, who revel in the glee of the sad punchline she eventually became.
The performances are almost uniformly excellent from much of the main cast. Sebastian Stan continues to show his range, Bobby Cannavale is fun at points as a sleazy a Hard Copy producer, and Paul Walter Hauser plays the utter moron that was Shawn Eckhardt in such a way to invite laughter at his absurdly delusional and nasty idiocy. All the while Allison Janney steals every scene she’s in as the delightfully wicked but ultimately malicious mother.
At the centre is Margot Robbie in the film’s most difficult role. It’s amazing to see how far she has risen in such a relatively short time in the spotlight, but here is the proof that she really is the real deal. Her performance is fantastically devoted, with a brilliant hair and makeup job to replicate her counterpart but the brazen charm and high energy and emotion that rides through the entirety of this marvellously entertaining picture.
There are downsides to be said of some of its more incidental elements, as stated before in its portrayal of victim Kerrigan who barely gets to say a word even though this is Tonya’s story. Then there is Craig Gillespie’s direction, which is never poor and very well structured and shot but leaves something to be desired at points that could be held on. Also, the heavy use of digital effects added to make Robbie seem like she’s performing some of the more difficult skating feats is distracting at points in a way that prevents it from seamlessly sweeping up the audience as it should do.
I, Tonya might not work for people who have already made their mind up regarding their assumptions of Harding as an individual in the spotlight, but the work that it does to grant her a voice and an emotional perspective to events (slanted or otherwise) is an admirable reframing of a much-covered story with a modern mode of reading. But it’s the exhibition of lead Margot Robbie that makes this something of a must-see and one of the most interesting biopics of the year.