I, Tonya follows Tonya Harding, an American figure skater best known for being embroiled in an attack on another figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics.
However, far from a straight retelling of the incident and the fallout, this is a retelling of Tonya’s life and those she was closest too; it is a mockumentary where we see her upbringing and her struggles with her mother, LeVona, and her first husband, Jeff Gillooly. The story is an examination of the media circus surrounding Tonya, how she was treated by US Figure Skating Association and wrapped up in it are comments on class, media and America as a whole. It does not let up and goes for the jugular in all of these subjects, no one is left unpunished or unexamined, not even the audience, who are accused of the same things that Tonya’s mother and her ex-husband did to her by participating in the hatred for her stirred up by 24 news. The sequence where Margot Robbie as Tonya stares straight into the camera is one of the most powerful moments on cinema screens right now.
The skill of this film is that there is so much in it so you think it would be a meandering, bloated mess and yet it feels graceful, fast, light, sharp and entertaining as it is wrapped up with some ingenious cinematography and editing. Tonya’s triple axel and the sequence where she and her husband Jeff first separate are masterclasses in visual storytelling. It is also remarkable that it was able to fit all of these disparate parts together. The structure of the film works in its favour, taking the narration of The Big Short and cranking it up to 11. The film is more like a mockumentary, with talking-head interviews and reenactments of the events. Screenwriter Steven Rogers arranged interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly and used footage of interviews with other characters to inspire the story. However, it still has asides and fourth wall breaks that keep the film self-aware, fun and cutting. While it is claimed that we are supposed to make up our own mind about the series events as claimed in testimonial from Harding and Gillooly, the film clearly leans towards the story of Tonya, though this is not a bad thing as we see the trails she faced as she grew up and the way that she was treated by family and the skating association, getting a lifetime ban from skating rather than facing jail time for her involvement in the assault.
Perhaps the main thing that drives this film are the performances. Margot Robbie is on fire as Tonya, centering the film with a fire that is only slightly eclipsed this year by Francis McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Tonya as a character is fascinating, sympathetic, complex and incredibly versatile. Robbie rides the ups and downs tremendously, giving a performance that is incredibly believable despite the tone, delivering that gut punch toward the end of the film that I am sure has bruised millions of moviegoers. Sebastian Stan is suitably slimy, and vile as Jeff, while Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious and unhinged as Tonya’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, both playing almost Coenesque characters with a simple plan that got highly out of control; in any other movie they would have been the standouts if it were not for Tonya or the final person we have to talk about. This film is really Allison Janney’s. She deserves every nomination for her steely supporting role as Tonya’s mother, LeVona. I think most people could watch an entire movie of her; she is captivating. I spoke of fire before with Tonya well LeVona is all ice, with frosty stares and a cold remark for anyone who crosses her.
There are of course some issues, namely in the facial keying during the skating scenes which can cause some uncanny moments. Similarly, the cinematography can be a tad shaky during those skating scenes, but that might have been a stylistic choice to convey the speed and power that Tonya was exerting during the performance. Finally, and perhaps most disappointingly, during the middle part of the story, the film switches perspective to Jeffs story during the incident and planning of Nancy Kerrigan’s assault. This I thought was a misstep as it took the film directly out of Tonya’s hands and placed where firmly in one of her abusers. I felt that it reduced her to the periphery which is a place that she does not belong. It could be argued that because Jeff and his friend Shawn were more involved in the planning, execution and cover-up, then it was a reasonable switch, though not a welcome one.
I, Tonya is one of the most entertaining and creative award films of the year. It knows what it is, what it wants to say and how to do it. It is ice skate sharp with fabulous performances all round and a graceful technically skilled structure, a full 6.0 from me.
You can watch I, Tonya in cinemas now