Taken purely as a piece of fiction, I, Tonya is excellent, a powerful underdog tale that shines a light on the struggle faced by the forgotten American working (and not-so-working) classes.
It’s smart and funny and sad, with Margot Robbie once again showing she’s an outstanding talent. Director Craig Gillespie’s movie has moments of anarchic brilliance, borrowing stylistic flourishes from the Scorsese oeuvre, with fourth-wall breaking asides and a mischievous blurring of fact and fiction.
But where Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street used these devices to make us question – and ultimately condemn – his characters (you’d have to be a dedicated misanthrope to be rooting for Jordan Belfort after an hour of The Wolf of Wall Street), Gillespie can’t bring himself to denounce figure-skating’s most infamous anti-heroine.
Anyone who grew up in the 80s will remember Tonya Harding, the self-described redneck who took figure-skating by storm when she became the first woman to land a triple axel. But it was her part in a plot to intimidate, maim and even possibly kill a fellow American skater, in order to secure her place at the Olympic Games, that cemented her in infamy (in the end a bungling ‘hit-man’ merely smashed her opponent’s knee with a metal pipe before headbutting his way through a plate glass window to escape, albeit briefly).
Harding’s story is tragic in the true sense of the word, a remarkable talent destined to be squandered by forces largely beyond her control. Her mother, played with tremendous venom by Allison Janney, was mean and abusive, and Harding’s husband was a prolific wife-beater. She also smoked, worked as a waitress to make ends meet, and faced discrimination from the US Figure Skating Board because her face didn’t fit. But on the flip-side, she was allowed to compete in the world’s most prestigious tournament despite being implicated in a felony against a teammate, and amid a catastrophic slump in form, so things did occasionally cut her way.
Regardless of the historically dubious script, Robbie is exceptional, her Tonya sympathetic but also ferocious, a precociously gifted winner sadly born on the wrong side of the tracks. The actor’s impressive skating ability, coupled with some editing wizardry, makes you really believe she’s hurling her 5’6” frame – a full five inches taller than the real woman – around 1,080 degrees, landing with the toothy flash of a serial-killer grin. Janney is even better, hilarious in her vindictiveness, and a solid pick for Best Supporting Actress.
It’s just a shame the whole project feels so disingenuous (the blame for the ‘incident’ is conveniently placed on the one guy who’s now dead, although he was as ludicrous in life as he is in this fiction). These performances deserved a little more dirty laundry alongside the leotards and sequins.