At the outset of I, Tonya, the amusingly contradictory to-camera interviews given by the characters recalling the film’s events suggest that what we’re about to see is a multi-perspective, and very unreliable, take on the infamous events of the build up to the 1994 Winter Olympics figure skating competition. Though this what director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers give us to an extent, their film is also more empathetic than that, allowing the disgraced Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) to tell her own story. Hers is the version of the facts that the film is most comfortable settling with, ensuring the plentiful entertainment mined from her life doesn’t feel too exploitative.
Harding is now best known for the scandal in which she was embroiled after her husband Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dull-witted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) organised an attack on rival American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, breaking her knee. It made her into one of the great real-life villains of the ‘90s, the American public more than happy to look down upon and hate this working class woman who dared enter an upper-class world through nothing other than sheer talent on the ice.
I, Tonya covers all of Harding’s early life, gifted with enormous skating ability but weighed down by her abusive households. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is a vile monster, always belittling and assaulting her, and Harding’s escape route of living with Jeff just leads to more beatings at his hands. These sequences are properly distressing, and watching the abusers justify themselves in their talking-head sequences makes them into hateful villains even as we’re encouraged to laugh at them. Harding herself is far from perfect, but watching her overcome these obstacles and become the best in her sport is very satisfying.
Gillespie stages the skating sequences with confident verve, and, despite some overly obvious CG enhancements, they are thrilling. Harding and her competitors pull off tricks that seem superhuman and even if the phrase ‘she’s successfully landed a triple axle’ means nothing to you, the technical skill of the athletes here is nothing short of jaw-dropping. The soundtrack chosen for these scenes, though, could be generously described as ‘deeply uninspired’, and very on the nose and overbearing music remains a problem throughout the whole film.
Robbie gives a transformative performance as Harding, funny, vicious and almost unrecognisable. She’s never been better, and neither has Sebastian Stan as a self-centred thug of a husband. Inevitably, it’s Janney who steals the show, a gale-force horror show of a mother utterly incapable of seeing even a fraction of how horrible she is. Often accompanied by a parrot with impeccable comic timing, LaVona does earn a lot of laughs, but they’re almost always discomforting or followed up by gasp-inducing acts of cruelty. This balance can be tough to strike, and I, Tonya doesn’t always manage it, but when it does it really flies, the two hour runtime zipping by.
Occasional appearances from Bobby Cannavale as a buffoonishly tanned and hair-gelled reporter, giving a more objective view on the case, are always very funny. Shawn’s moronic delusions of being an international bodyguard/fixer are also hilarious, his breathless pitch to Jeff of a plan to send threatening letters to Harding’s skating peers the comedic highlight of the film. The drama side is slightly less effective, particularly when Janney isn’t on screen, and a moment where Harding berates the audience as another abuser for revelling in her downfall didn’t land in a UK cinema, 23 years after the fact.
Gillespie and Rogers are triumphant in highlighting the wretched classism that allowed Harding to become the woman that America loved to hate. They touch a little too lightly on the rampant misogyny that meant she felt the full ire of the public instead of the more culpable male culprits, but it still gives a powerful final backing to Harding’s final speech. I, Tonya, even in covering a full 40 years of a its subject’s life, is far from a conventional biopic, and with Robbie and Janney on superb form it’s a flawed but gripping rehabilitation of an unfairly assassinated character.