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.
How is life affected by art? How is art affected by life? Should they be affected by each other and what could happen if they do? These are the questions at the forefront of My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis’ latest, Goodbye Christopher Robin.
As we see young Christopher Robin and his father playing in the woods, made into whimsical gold through Curtis and cinematographer Ben Smithard’s lens and Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston’s warm presences on screen, the audience is shown a world in a pit of despair. A world already ravaged by what was declared “The War To End All Wars”, and with its successor on the horizon, it needs levity. It needs hope. It needs to reconnect with that childhood sense of innocence, and through A. A. Milne’s writings about a young boy named Christopher Robin and his animal friends at play, the world gets exactly that. Those earlier questions are asked, rejected and brought back to show that while the adventures of Winnie The Pooh gave the world something special, it also took something even more precious from the people who made it possible.
The film is in a similar vein as 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, in that this is also about the wrenching real-world inspiration for what would become one of Disney’s most beloved stories. That balancing act between the crushing harshness of reality and the pleasantries of fiction to help people come to terms with that reality is a key component of this type of story. We see Milne struggle against his own memories of being on the front line, and we see the effect that being a child celebrity had on young C. R., but the film never feels too comfortable in facing that which is uncomfortable. Any time it feels like the film is cutting too close to the bone, it ends up pulling itself out of that spot through either jarring coldness (channelled through Margot Robbie, taking the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’ to a rather grating extreme) or moments where it’s honestly hard to tell whether it’s meant to be taken as funny.
In a film that juggles postpartum depression and shell shock, especially one aimed at familial audiences, precision of tone is critical and it’s too all-over-the-place for that to apply here.
But even through the tonal problems, the film’s main conceit rings true: appreciate the little things in life while you still have them. It sends the audience back into a younger mindset, where the world was less cold and even when it was, it was because we wanted it to be. Hard to throw snowballs in the summer, right? It may fumble in highlighting the story behind the story in all its unpleasantness, but as a tribute to a man and his son who gave the world joy, they are fumbles worth sitting through. In a time where it feels like we could also be on the brink of more conflict, we may desire to return to that sense of childlike wonder.