I, Tonya follows the incredible rise and fall of American Figure Skating champion Tonya Harding, taking time to show events from her perspective in a hard-hitting and thoroughly entertaining real-life drama. Who’d have thought the world of figure skating could be so gripping?
If you’re a similar age to me, a kid growing up in the 90s, it’s likely you’ll have been too young to know the name Tonya Harding, never mind understand what she was so well known for. But the rest of the world knew, and they were fascinated with her story. A story that isn’t exactly a concrete one, with lies and deception coming from all directions.
Right from the off, we’re told the film is based on ‘real, wildly contradictory interviews with Tonya and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly’, painting a sceptical tone on proceedings. From there we follow Tonya’s life from young skating prodigy to an All-American champion, with some notable bumps along the way.
I, Tonya has an interesting structure. Re-enactments of the aforementioned interviews are interspersed throughout the action, setting the scenes we’re about to watch and offering valuable insights from those involved. But how valuable can they be when they directly disagree with one another? Away from the interviews you have characters constantly breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly and asking you to question what you’ve been shown. It’s a fascinating mechanic that cleverly mirrors the back and forth drama of the media at the time, where very few people could say for certain how things went down.
There is one key theme that runs through Tonya’s life however that can’t really be disuputed, and that is abuse. From the tender age of 3 when we meet her, we see pretty much everyone in her life abusing her in some way. This comes most prominently from her foul-mouthed, stone golem of a mother and later her impulsively aggressive husband. But it’s also present in her skating life with judges often being unable to see her as anything other than a redneck on ice, far from the American princess they want to represent the sport. I, Tonya doesn’t shy away from the dark moments, with scenes of domestic violence played out quite realistically and frequently. But despite that, the film is consistently funny. You’ll ask yourself why you’re chuckling as a small girl is emotionally torn apart by her mother’s viscous tongue, but then you realise this is director Craig Gillespie’s intention, to make you experience emotions just as contradictory as the source material itself. A line is carefully treaded between respecting Tonya’s harsh experiences and offering moments of irony and humour matching her own personality. She always seems to be on the back foot, a position her ridiculous natural talent definitely doesn’t warrant.
None of this would tie together at all if the performances were anything other than pitch-perfect. Margot Robbie stars and produces the film, and her passion for the story and character of Tonya shines through. She’s sharp, witty, vulnerable and naive, everything you’d expect a young woman with a troubled past to be when she’s thrust into such a limelight. She’s brilliant in what is undoubtedly a far from glamourous role and gets to show off what she can do when given the space to perform. As good as Robbie is though, she is often outshone by the fantastic Alison Janney, playing Tonya’s corrosive mother. Janney completely transforms into the chain-smoking Dragon LaVona Harding, tossing out some of the cruelest words without a flicker of emotion. She’s a constant negative presence in Tonya’s life. Colder than the ice her daughter skates on yet still somehow willing to fund her development, she’s a fascinating character to watch. And then you realise that this woman exists in the real world and talks candidly about how everything she did was for Tonya’s benefit. She could happily sit alongside the great villains of the fictional world.
Sebastian Stan does a great turn as Tonya’s volatile partner Jeff Gillooly, hiding his vicious streak behind a simple charm. Of course, to this day he denies all forms of domestic abuse as the story once again turns into a case of he said, she said, but it’s not too much of a stretch to buy into the events as Tonya tells them. I got a lot of enjoyment from Tonya’s self-proclaimed bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, played by Paul Walter Hauser. A bumbling buffoon still living with his parents but utterly convinced that he has secret agent connections, he’s a dumb goon that steals a lot of the memorable one liners.
I, Tonya takes viewers on a dark yet wildly entertaining biopic journey, gripping whether you know the story or not. In fact, i’d argue that it’s even better going in with no prior knowledge of Tonya Harding or why she was once one of the most talked about women on the planet. It’s brutal yet witty, with an absolutely thumping soundtrack and a real sense of style that had me smiling throughout. It feels a touch overlong in the final act, but that’s a small side note to make considering I was so completely invested in this story of a young American Figure Skater pirouetting her way through a troubled life.
Watch it if you liked:
The Wrestler, Inside Llewyn Davis, Rocky