Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was a top level figure skater in the 90s. Her intensity and physical talent was a wonder, but as a ‘redneck’ coming from a poor background, the world of figure skating was reluctant to acknowledge her as one of their own. I, Tonya documents her rise and fall as one of the most controversial sports stars in US history.
The phrase ‘Goodfellas on ice’ has been coined to describe this movie, and it’s easy to understand why. Its tone-setting soundtrack, accompanying voice-over and taste for profanity feels very Scorsese. However, comparing it to such a classic is unfair, and in many ways I, Tonya stands alone as an electrifying piece of original cinema.
What sets it apart is the fascinating relationship the film shares with the truth. From the very beginning director Craig Gillespie makes absolutely clear that this story is not the objective truth. Instead he takes a number of interviews from later in life, acted out by the characters in interjecting clips, and takes an amalgamation of different perspectives to create a messy, slightly ambiguous account of events.
Not only does this allow for some fun breaking of the fourth wall (as Tonya’s husband recounts her chasing him with a shotgun, Margot Robbie turns to camera, cocks her shotgun and says “I NEVER did this”), but it also creates a fascinating analysis of truth. With the film often directly (and deliberately) contradicting itself, the audience is left constantly second guessing what happened and what didn’t, deciding who and what to believe. How it works as a coherent story is baffling, but the writing and editing is so clever, precise and self-aware that it succeeds.
It would all be in vain however, were it not for an astonishing lead performance from Margot Robbie. The Australian actress, still only 27, has become synonymous with beauty and glamour in her work. This character on the other hand is anything but glamorous. It’s a really stripped back, revealing performance. A brutally honest portrayal of a remarkably dysfunctional woman who is merely the product of a horrific upbringing. Robbie brings so much sincerity and honesty to the role that it’s impossible not to sympathise with Tonya. She’s massively flawed, but deep down totally innocent, and that means the emotionally heavy scenes towards the end really land.
If Tonya is Frankenstein’s monster, then her Victor Frankenstein is the mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Janney is equally brilliant as a mother who mistakes traumatising cruelty as some form of tough love. She genuinely believes her parenting is good – “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes.” – But fails to realise the damage done to Tonya’s mental health. Along with Sebastian Stan’s great turn as teenage sweetheart-cum-adult abusive husband, it’s easy to see why the lead character lives such a twisted life.
Skating sequences are handled impressively too, including some very complex shots delivered with aplomb. The camera always stays on the ice with Tonya. It’s where she feels herself the most, which makes it an intimate environment, and one where we really get to know the character.
Dynamic, robust and full of spirit, I, Tonya is a whirlwind of a film that is sure to sweep you up and leave you in awe of a quite frankly ridiculous, true(ish) story.