Before she was replaced on the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle by OJ Simpson, in 1994 Tonya Harding was the most infamous person in America. Even those across the world with no knowledge of or interest in figure skating had heard of her. But most know little about her beyond her alleged involvement in an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. Craig Gillespie’s darkly comic, entertainingly farcical biography, I, Tonya, looks to dig deeper into the rise and fall of Harding, and finds that a story’s truth, as we know better than even these days, depends on who you’re asking.
Steven Roger’s script gleefully embraces the murky nature of Tonya’s story, beginning with the title card of a true story “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” The film is structured around the retelling of this absurd tale from multiple perspectives 20 years later, reminding us that there are many sides even to stories we think we know . The first part of the film, leading up to “the incident”, might as well start with the line “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a skater”, that much does it recall something like Goodfellas. Through meta interruptions to the story, breaks of the fourth wall and voiceover, I, Tonya follows a tragic structure as Allison Janney’s superbly dark, razor tongued LaVona Golden, a poor waitress from Oregon, aggressively moulds her daughter into a skater in an effort to make something of her life. She convinces the young Tonya (Margot Robbie) that she skates best when she feels the worst, and does her utmost to make her life that way. When Tonya meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her craving for genuine affection blindly leads her into another abusive relationship that ends up costing her everything.
What follows owes a great debt to another 90s classic, Fargo. Even that film’s duplicitous “This is a true story” title card might have served as inspiration for this stranger than fiction tale. With all the skill and subtlety of the kind of bumbling boobs usually found stumbling their way through an ill conceived criminal caper in a Coen Brothers’ movie, Jeff and his hilariously delusional friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) hatch a plan to threaten Kerrigan and “even the playing field”. But a scheme to mail threatening letters soon spirals out of control and ends up with a Kerrigan taking a baton to the knee. It’s an entertaining sequence but suffers from all but dropping Tonya out of the story. When it returns to her, an intense scene of her preparing for the Olympics shows just what was missing.
While Gillespie’s film eagerly mocks the laughable parts of this story – from the sport itself to the people involved in the tale – it never truly takes aim at Harding. She may have become a punchline in the subsequent years, but I, Tonya looks sympathetically at someone who suffered physical and psychological violence first at the hands of her mother, then her husband. Someone who railed against the classism and sexism around her and ultimately suffered her greatest possible punishment – a lifetime skating ban – for something the film believes she didn’t do. Margot Robbie gives easily her best performance ever as the insecure, vulnerable but explosive Harding, masterfully managing to balance a performance that feels like it embraces both the real person and it’s caricature. Sebastian Stan’s portrayal of Jeff is the weakest of the central players, but part of that is in the comparison to the power performances of Robbie and Janney, and part is in the difficulty of capturing such a slippery character – shy, sweet, likeable, a bit of a dolt, who’s also controlling, manipulative and abusive.
Gillespie displays some nice close-up, intimate and flowing camera work through the delightfully ugly late 80s, early 90s aesthetics, and frequent collaborator, editor Tatiana S. Riegel, keeps the pace of the film from dropping. But the musical choices are frequently frustrating obvious to the point of distraction, beginning with the introduction of LaVona while “Devil Woman” plays in the background. Roger’s script is also guilty of laying it on too thick and obviously, taking away somewhat from the story it’s already told with lines like “It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers, too.”
Tonya Harding might be the focus of this story, but really, this film’s all about Margot Robbie.
I, Tonya is in Australia cinemas from 25 January through Roadshow Films.