Hark to the tale of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), an ice skating prodigy from an impoverished background who endures years of abuse from her mother, Lavona Golden (Allison Janney) and husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in her pursuit of glory on the ice. Her dreams of Olympic gold are just about realised, too – unfortunately, being implicated in the brutal 1994 attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) scuppers her career.
Craig Gillespie’s brisk but uneven account of Harding’s life pulls out every tool in the post-modern biopic box, including breaking the fourth wall, unreliable conflicting narrators, a seemingly endless supply of period needle drops and the by-now-ubiquitous footage of the real participants playing over the credits.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to know which tool to use where, meaning he’s frequently using a screwdriver handle to bang in a nail, stretching a metaphor past breaking point. We get the requisite details of Harding’s life, from her early days as a button-cute four year old skating ingenue through her tumultuous personal life, her clashes with the ice skating orthodoxy, her rise and, with the assault on Kerrigan almost accidentally organised by Gillooly and his delusional right hand man, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), her fall into ignominy. What the film fails to do is imbue these events with any meaning.
The problems stem from the script by Steven Rogers. Tonya, Jeff and Lavona share the bulk of the narration duties (Bobby Cannavale steps in to fill in the gaps as a muckraking journalist), but the film puts us so deep in Tonya’s corner that any pretense that the views we’re presented with are balanced or of equal value is ludicrous. Really, it’s right there in the title – this is I, Tonya, not Rashomon On Ice, and we are heavily encouraged to take her account at face value – the presence of other accounts, especially from characters portrayed as the villains of the piece, is baffling. We’re given no insight into the inner lives of any of the other players; everyone bar Tonya is opaque.
At times this leads to some questionable omissions. The film understandably focuses on the Kerrigan attack, and rightly so – it was a massive scandal that captivated the media of the time. Here, Kerrigan is almost a bystander to her own story, relegated to a few brief appearances and Harding’s assertion that they were actually friends – a claim left unexplored.
That relationship is not the only road not taken here. While arguably an account of talent hammered flat on the anvil of circumstance, I, Tonya takes a shallow and arguably glib view of the milieu in which Harding was raised. Much is made of how this girl from the wrong side of the tracks is ostracised by the ice skating community, to the point of judges docking her points during competitions, but no attempt is made to really take into account the real cost, psychological and situational, of the life lived. Gillespie’s chosen tone is black comedy, frequently straying into farce, and the film treats so many of the tangible details of lower working class life – the clothes, the decor, the food, the attitudes – as fodder for jokes and objects of ridicule. At times, this even extends to the shocking amount of domestic violence and emotional abuse Tonya endures on screen at the hands of both her husband and mother. Narratively, remarkably little is done to measure the impact of the beatings, yelling, and general day-to-horrors heaped upon our heroine.
Performance-wise it’s another story altogether, and if anything what lifts I, Tonya out of mid-range biopic territory are the fantastic turns by Janney and Robbie. The reliably excellent Janney crafts a fascinatingly loathsome character in Levona, a bitter, unavailable, endlessly cold and cruel woman whose relationship with her daughter remains maddeningly impossible to quantify. There’s an expectation in this sort of thing for the other shoe to drop, for a late stage revelation of the heart of gold generally hidden under the rough hide of a tough mentor figure – we get none of that here. Attempts to dig into Lavona’s depths just reveal colder, harder terrain – it’s difficult to recall a more singularly loathsome figure in recent cinema history.
And then there’s Robbie’s Harding. Robbie leaves it all out on the field here, unafraid to make her Tonya abrasive, naive, at times bitchy and cruel – but also driven, vulnerable, and frequently lonely. Her prickly demeanour is armour and, given the people she’s surrounded by, it’s not hard to understand the reason for its existence. It’s a stellar turn; in being willing to risk being unlikable, Robbie makes Harding relatable, and the fact that she is endlessly fascinating in the film is all down to her work, not the script’s. Robbie’s Harding is so watchable that we remain engaged with her story even after she is denied almost all agency for the last third of the film, being propelled along by the mechanisms of plot rather than her own choices. It’s a great, great performance – imagine what she could do with a great script.
Ultimately, I, Tonya is a three star film buoyed by a couple of five star turns. That Janney and especially Robbie bring the thunder here is a tribute to them, not the material ,which does nothing of much interest with either Harding’s life or the biopic form. It’s a shame these shining performances don’t have a better setting, but perhaps they shine just that bit brighter by contrast.