Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers have taken an unapologetically black-comedic, highly fictionalized approach to the life of figure skater and media punching bag Tonya Harding. I, Tonya invites us to feel smugly superior and to sneer at “white trash” culture and Hard Copy-friendly scandal, even when the real-life events are depressing, bloody and ugly. A title card tells us that the movie is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” Harding, played by Margot Robbie, announces, “There’s no such thing as the truth.”
The snarky tone and the subject matter aren’t always the best fit. The movie’s binary structure takes a he-said, she-said approach to the events narrated by Harding and volatile ex-husband Gillooly, played persuasively by Sebastian Stan. It’s all presented as a would-be Scorsese wink-wink affair—a brawling, bone-cracking, trailer-trash farce mockumentary.
At times, the abuse she endures is so stifling, you sit there wishing you could see her take righteous revenge.
Should we really be expected to laugh it up when, in flashbacks, Harding’s abusive, chain-smoking, hard-luck waitress mother, LaVona (the great Allison Janney, having a ball playing it so terrifyingly nasty that she borders on camp), bats her kid around and so humiliates her that the poor little girl in her tacky skating outfit urinates on the ice? Should we double over as Harding’s volatile husband smashes her head against glass and draws a gun on her? The movie, as directed at a lightning clip by Gillespie, surely wants us to.
For those who don’t quite remember all the sordid details, Harding was a figure-skating ace who, in the 1994 lead-up to the United States Figure Staking Championship in Detroit, got embroiled in international infamy when she was believed to have been part of an attempt to sideline her friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan. A male assailant kneecapped Kerrigan with a police baton, putting the skater out of commission, and Harding went on to win the championship. But soon the FBI was grilling Harding, her husband and her husband’s moronic circle of friends for their possible involvement in the crime; months after, Harding was banned from competitive skating. Members of the press—who mocked the hardscrabble, undereducated Harding for years—pounced on her. The athlete careered, as the Stephen Sondheim song lyric goes, from career to career, spiraling so far down and becoming so desperate for cash, and attention, that she was involved in lowdown wrestling matches.
Harding makes for a terrific screen role: a true talent, aggressive and unfeminine, a sweating, coming-at-you athlete, hobbled by a taste for poofy hair and too-bright skating getups. To the fans and judges, she’s a brassy affront to the manicured swans and painted dolls who glide around the ice and tend to win all the prizes. As presented in I, Tonya, though, Harding is scrappy and oddly admirable. As played by Margot Robbie, who does as much of her own skating as possible, she’s fascinating, pitiable and winning.
The film really piles it on, treating her like dirt, bloodying and bruising her. At times, the social class-related abuse she endures is so intense and stifling, you sit there wishing you could see her take righteous revenge. Robbie may not be perfect casting as the rough and ready Harding, but her fierce and generous performance gives Harding a measure of sympathy and grace, even when the movie around her doesn’t seem to want to.
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