I, Tonya is the extraordinary and possibly true story of Tonya Harding, covering her rise to fame and then fall to infamy. Margot Robbie plays the troubled figure skater who escapes an abusive childhood and marriage to achieve great success in her field. Her success is then complicated by the prejudices of her peers and judges and the increasingly erratic behaviour of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
Steven Rogers, the writer of this film was faced with the issue of how to tell a story that none of the people involved in seem capable of agreeing upon. He achieves this very creatively by staging the film in the context of interviews with the main players. The characters talk to camera in these segments, offering differing opinions on, and versions of, the events. Sometimes the characters even break the fourth wall to refute the events occurring on screen. This lends a playful side to the film which is definitely phrased as a dark comedy.
The first half of the film concerns Harding’s horrific upbringing at the hands of her mother (Allison Janney), and then her terrifying relationship with her husband. The moments of abuse in the film are never played for laughs and are always shocking. The film effectively builds pathos for the troubled Harding, even as her own behaviour becomes more extreme. The second half of the film concerns “the incident” and plays like a Coen-esque crime caper. The absurdity of the true story is often highlighted to great comedic effect.
The film was described as the Goodfellas of figure skating, and there’s definitely something of Scorsese’s spirit in the film’s energetic pacing. It moves with a great speed through Harding’s life with a darkly playful wit that makes the narrative gripping. There are very affecting moments of tension as well as pathos. The skating sequences are thrilling though they do have one unfortunate handicap.
The computer generated effect of imposing Robbie’s face onto a skate double’s body is never seamless and always distracts from the stunning choreography and camerawork. There’s a troubling uncanny quality to her face in these sequences, sometimes even appearing like self-parody. With the action moving so fast, it’s hard to see why they didn’t just use a double, with special effects used to blur the transitions between them. Especially as the hero shots of Harding in her moments of triumph come after the skating. Actual footage of Harding and her routine in the end credits reveals what is lost in this technique.
However the skating only takes up a small amount of the film. It’s really a character study and at its heart is Robbie’s utterly convincing performance as Harding. She is able to capture the desperation and sadness of the character, and doesn’t become a caricature or cliché during the more bombastic moments of her story. She shows great restraint as well as ferocity and humour.
Robbie is supported by some excellent performances from her co-stars. Allison Janney is deeply frightening as Harding’s abusive mother. She appears unmoveable and almost completely lacking in warmth. Sebastian Stan offers a much more complicated character. He is able to bring a surprising humanity to the role, as well as the viscous anger required. He articulates fear and sorrow extremely well. Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious in the role of Shawn, the deeply deluded, self-appointed bodyguard who organises “the incident”.
The story of Tonya Harding is very strange, somewhat frightening and undeniably tragic. I, Tonya ably captures these different aspects and is funny, moving and thrilling.
5 / 5