Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t familiar with Craig Gillespie as a director prior to this release, nor indeed was I familiar with the colourful Tonya Harding. I was born in 1989, I’m Scottish and had zero interest in ice skating. What the hell attracted me to this film then I hear you ask? Margot Robbie is the answer. She’s a supremely gifted performer and she doesn’t disappoint here again.
If like me, you weren’t aware of the controversy that was to define the titular character back in 1994 then I’ll try my best to give a short history lesson. Emphasis on short. Tonya Harding was something of a fiery, indomitable figure in the world of ice skating. She struggled to gain recognition, plaudits for her performances and was subsequently implicated in an FBI investigation after her rival Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted after a practice session.
This film is undoubtedly a character driven, biopic that tries to delve into the dysfunctional upbringing of Tonya. Gillespie utilises past and present perspectives to focus on her incredibly bizarre, at times abusive relationship with her mother, the impact that had on her as a person and how it forged her career going forward, whilst also shaping public opinion of her.
All of which proved to be quite crucial in shaping the narrative when the sensationalist press kicked into action during the customary media frenzy in 1994. In the short research I’ve done on the real Harding, it seems abundantly clear to me that she was singled out as the villain of the piece. This despite there being little to no evidence of her having any knowledge or involvement in the attack. What this film then seeks to do, is show the human side of the story and it does this rather nicely.
I have to say though, that the early flashbacks with Robbie playing a supposed teenage Harding where a little jarring. No harm to Margot, she’s a beautiful looking lady, but she’s never pulling that age range off. I did enjoy the antagonistic dynamics explored during these between her and Allison Janney’s, LaVona Fay Golden character however. Her mother was the atypical domineering pushy type, determined to see her child become a professional skater at the expense of everything else.
There was more than a hint of sadistic vindictiveness in there too. The scene with her stabbing her daughter in the back was genuinely shocking. And yet despite this, I often found myself laughing at her antics which were full of black humour. Such as paying a heckler to give her daughter abuse and entering her home in the midst of journalistic hounding, with a voice recorder hidden in her clothes. I thought Janney was great here, she went above and beyond to portray this oddity of a woman. She deserved her Oscar nomination and win.
Tonya didn’t seem to have much luck in love either. Fleeing the clutches of her abusive mother and landing into an equally abusive relationship with her Freddy Mercury wannabe, moustachioed, partner, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
Her struggle wasn’t contained merely to family and romance issues either. She fought tirelessly for recognition in a sport that placed equal importance on sparkly clean backgrounds, perfectly applied makeup and outfits as it did on performing truly exhilarating and perfectly choreographed routines. Tonya, as the film perfectly shows, had the natural ability, being the first to woman to perform a triple axle, but her common background, peroxide hair and disposition for abusing judges meant she would never reach the top.
And again, it proved pivotal in the witch hunt that transpired after the Nancy Kerrigan attack. She was disliked by many in the sport and was never recovering fully from that setback.
As I said before, Margot Robbie was the main attraction for me going in to see this film. Her performance is incredible. The nature of the story meant that her and Janney needed big showings, effectively they had to carry the film. And they did this. I’ve already spoken about Janney, who impressed me as the prolific smoker and sadistic mother. Robbie however did a splendid job as the voracious skater. She looked demented at times with the makeup, almost unrecognisable and played off her on screen mother, not to mention Sebastian Stan wonderfully.
Visually, the film was reasonable. It was set in the early 90s and looked accurate enough. They utilised many flashbacks which manifested themselves in grainy VHS style footage and looked fine. It reminded me of old Christmas videos of my family from back in the day. The CG was a little off in the skating scenes however, but it didn’t take me out the film or anything.
I can’t really recall the score which should speak for itself really.
If I was to have one other criticism of I, Tonya then it would probably be the slightly contradictory comments and views from different people on the events. This was deliberately done by Gillespie though, effectively letting the audience make their own mind up in regards to who they believe.
Like I said at the beginning, I’m not a fan of ice skating, I wasn’t aware of the Kerrigan/Harding rivalry or the subsequent controversy, so I was very much conflicted on whether to actually watch this film. Thankfully I did give it a shot though because it was an enjoyable and interesting insight into a unique individual with one of the most peculiar mother daughter relationships I’ve ever seen.
I’d have no hesitation in recommending this.