Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianna Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser
Based on the life story of American figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya’s plot revolves around one particular “incident” in Harding’s life: the assault on fellow skater and Olympic rival, Nancy Kerrigan, and Harding’s involvement. Based on interviews with Harding and people supposedly close to her, the film is a documentary-style biographical drama with some drops of comedy injected in. With Harding’s life being full of violence and her desperate need to be loved, does I, Tonya fully grasp and reflect the extent of the abuse, both physical and mental, that she suffered, or does it focus too much on “the incident” to be able to carry a relatable and/or educational message?
Tonya Harding’s life was not easy – most of her childhood and teenage years were spent under physical and mental attack from her emotionally stifled mother, LaVona Golden (Janney), particularly once her loving and doting father left the family home, never to be seen again (at least not in this retelling). Harding then goes on to marry Jeff Gillooly (Stan), another abusive control freak who ironically just wants to do his best by Harding but eventually causes the downfall of her beloved career. Gillespie’s use of the documentary style, along with a few fourth-wall-breaking moments, provides a clean window through which the audience can easily view Harding’s life and experiences. Often told from different perspectives (generally either Harding’s, her mother’s or her husband’s) it makes it very clear that each person also has a different perspective on events: was Harding involved in the assault more than she let on, or was she generally ignorant to what her husband had somewhat inadvertently caused? Through I, Tonya we get an idea of what probably happened but ultimately it’s left to us to decide, which is both frustrating and true to life.
As far as legitimacy and true-to-life films go, I, Tonya is certainly one of the better ones. Robbie’s performance as the near-tragic titular Tonya is enthralling, something we have come to expect from the stupendously talented actress, who is perhaps one of the absolute best of her generation. With numerous Best Actress nominations for her role here (including an Academy Award nomination) Robbie’s commitment to the role and the film as a whole is blatant, particularly with her extra role as a producer on the project. She makes you feel pity for Harding and when she manages to land her triple axel jump, for which she is famous, you will feel the goosebumps and pleasurable pay-off as though you were viewing the real thing at the time. Even Robbie’s CGI face on the skater actually performing the stunts isn’t all that bad. Thanks to history we know all about Harding’s success, but it’s a credit to both Robbie and Gillespie for making it feel fresh.
As good as Robbie is, the real outstanding performance is from Janney as Harding’s mother. She really makes you despise the woman, even when Golden attempts to justify her actions to Harding. Janney embodies the role so well it’s frightening. Subsequently she has won just about every award going for Best Supporting Actress in this role, including the Academy Award. Janney has often been overlooked as a standout performer: to look through her back catalogue over her extensive career is to see just how talented she is and how far she has come and how much she truly deserves the recognition as an Academy Award winner.
Stan’s performance as Gillooly is just as good as Robbie’s portrayal of Harding, however the character is just not as substantial as Harding. Abusive apologetic men are ten-a-penny in movies (which very unfortunately reflects reality) and there’s nothing in particular about Gillooly that makes him in any way likable, and Stan plays that well. Perhaps Gillooly’s only redeeming factor (and it’s a very, very slight redemption) is that he really did not want to ruin Harding. It absolutely does not excuse his actions, however it does show a human side to an abusive man, a side that tends to keep a woman returning to him, and that’s always an interesting side to explore. The more we can try to understand why this kind of thing happens, perhaps the more we can do to stop it and avoid it all together. Films like this keep this kind of thing in the minds of the public, and that can’t be a bad thing.
The complexity of love and what someone is willing to put up with in order to have it is one of the most explored situations in movies. Harding’s need to be loved, whether by her husband, her mother or the public, is put on show for all the world to see here: nothing is hidden from view, perhaps explaining the documentary style and breaks in the fourth wall. I, Tonya has no hidden agenda: everything is based on as much fact as the filmmakers could gather as well as testimonies from those involved, even showing clips of the real interviews with the real people during the end credits. If anything, the actual “incident” involving Kerrigan almost feels like an afterthought for the last half an hour or so of the film. Despite Robbie as Harding telling us it’s what we’ve all come here for, the real interest ends up being in Harding and her life, how she managed to build herself up in one of the toughest, most judgemental sports despite being from an impoverished background compared to other well-off skaters. Not to mention the human-shaped obstacles she faced in the form of Gillooly and Golden. Although Harding is at times brash and cringeworthy, overall it’s easy to come around to her and her attitude (she is described as being like America early on in the film: you either like it or you don’t). By the end of I, Tonya, it’s quite likely that you will come out on the side of liking Harding, particularly in a day and age where we need more outspoken and determined women proving that no matter your background or sufferings, you can be just who you want to be as long as you work hard enough for it.