An Oscar Film That Will Skate Into Your Heart
Plot Summary: A manic twist on the life of shamed figure skater Tonya Harding.
"There’s no such thing as truth.” Those are the words of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as she sits in a run-down kitchen. With a wry smile on her face and a cigarette in her hand, the disgraced figure skater reiterates the forewarning of Craig Gillespie’s twisted biopic to a vintage camcorder. Some of this is real. A lot of it isn’t. But what does it matter? Adopting this nihilistic view of truth as a mantra, what follows is a frenzied, unbelievable story that deliberately blurs fact and fiction.
Set to the beat of a hard and fast 80s soundtrack, I, Tonya is Goodfellas on ice. Matching the unyielding pace and flair of Scorsese’s mobster epic, Harding’s life mirrors the rise and fall typical to the genre. Starting in the backwater of Portland, Oregon, at the behest of her domineering mother, LaVonya Fay Golden (Allison Janney), Tonya Harding steps onto the ice at the tender age of four. A born natural, it is only a few years before the youngster is skating rings around girls twice her age.
In any other situation, Harding would be the cocky veteran, ready and raring to tear up any rookie who dare cross her. Yet Tonya’s position is not that of a skilled virtuoso, rather the scrappy underdog—not because of her famous rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan, nor an unattainable desire for success. Harding’s greatest challenge is ditching her lowly hick roots. Composing routines to 80s hair metal and performing in cheap, homemade outfits, Harding has a white trash stench impossible to erase. Dismissed as too coarse for the dignified sport of figure skating, Harding resents anyone who fails to look beyond her social status. Laced with an unwavering moxie and a temperamental attitude, Harding has a humanity to her that makes her instantly endearing, bolstered by Margot Robbie, who eloquently captures Harding’s flaws, insecurities, and desires. Whether basking in the brief happiness of her wedding day, or venomously retorting “suck my dick” to a judge...for better or worse, we are with Tonya all the way.
Trapped in an abusive relationship with her high school crush turned husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), off the rink, Harding’s life is a viciously cycle of passionate love, deep hatred, violence, and reluctant forgiveness. Equally abusive is Harding’s estranged mother; a tremendous performance by Allison Janney, LaVonya is a whirlwind of snide remarks and cutting comments. Desperately seeking validation and comfort from mother and husband, Harding seems destined to repeat her mistakes. Moments of staunch tension and emotion are cut by Gillespie’s dark, comedic tone. Mechanical in its elevation of pressure, the weapon used to make Harding so endearing also italicises her many toxic relationships.
Going from child prodigy to washed up, to Olympic hopeful, to laughing stock, all by her late 20s, emotional roller coaster is an all too apt—if not cliché—description of I, Tonya. Countering the roaring highs of Harding’s career, including being the first woman ever to complete a triple axel, are dizzying lows. The biggest of which is Harding’s involvement in Nancy Kerrigan’s assault. Made all the worse by her partial involvement, the events surrounding Kerrigan’s “accident” are portrayed as a farcical operation that quickly snowballs out of control. The only redeeming quality of Harding’s darkest hour is Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt. The bumbling idiot responsible for orchestrating the Kerrigan attack, Eckhardt’s delusions of being a counter-terrorist operative are a bittersweet piece of humour to accompany Harding’s fall from grace.
Yet for all the love and sympathy we feel, I, Tonya never lets you forget Harding is a villain as well as a hero. A pathological manipulator, Harding recounts multiple instances of half-harrowing, half-hilarious accounts of domestic violence, only to be quickly contradicted by her level-headed ex-husband. Spinning the same story various ways cleverly questions the reliability and motives of its various narrators. I, Tonya breaks away from the traditional biopic and into something much more devious, sexy, and in many ways, truthful.
Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, I, Tonya is as dirty and feisty as its central character. Craig Gillespie’s ambitious, semi-truthful biopic offers more than just flashy dance routines and a manic lead. Taking a vilified persona and transforming her into a sympathetic hero, I, Tonya’s warped narrative is as thoughtful as it is enjoyable. Unconventional and entertaining as hell I, Tonya sticks its landing to deliver a near flawless performance.