Perhaps a large amount of those over of the age of thirty will be familiar with Tonya Harding’s story, or at least be aware of her notoriety, and there’s no real reason for those in the younger to know the story at all. Harding’s biopic, I, Tonya, will resonate with audiences differently depending on their place in time, and whereas older viewers may watch the events unfold with a preconceived judgement, others may take it on face value, unaware of the negative sentiment many have for the film’s subject.
Revealing the details of the story is hardly a spoiler when the case remains one of the great tabloid scandals of the 20th century, however, I will give a forewarning to those who don’t know who Harding and Nancy Kerrigan are.
Throughout the 1990s Harding rose from her poor fractured white family to become the greatest figure skater in the world. Her sporting nemesis was Nancy Kerrigan, a former friend whose own career was on the rise. In 1993 Kerrigan was attacked after a championship training session. She was severely beaten above the knees, and was forced out of the upcoming Winter Olympics. The incident became a global scandal, with Harding becoming the prime suspect, was charged and was eventually banned from the sport for life. Of course, that’s a very basic rundown of what went down. The real story twists and turns like an Oscar-bait picture… and here we are.
I, Tonya is based on a series of interviews conducted between screenwriter Steven Rogers (Step Mom, Love the Coopers), Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. When Harding and Gillooly recounted the incident differently, Rogers decided that the best way to tell their story was to present both perceptions on screen in a “he said, she said” fashion. In doing so, Rogers has penned a compelling curiosity, where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, yet little doubt remains about the ultimate villain(s) throughout Harding’s life.
The first striking thing about the film is its portrayal of Harding herself. She is presented in a way that is both critical and sympathetic in equal measure, and while it depicts her upbringing as one of disadvantage and severe psychological abuse, it never excuses her behaviour or outlook on life. She possesses a “why me?” attitude and deflects personal accountability at every opportunity, and Roger’s screenplay never defends her actions. It does, however, create empathy for her and reminds us that regardless of the crime, she has – perhaps – paid for it ten fold through 20 years of malicious public opinion, as well as the conviction itself.
Margot Robbie (who also produces) stars as Harding in what should be considered to be the performance of her career thus far. Her take on the disgraced skater is a tour de force as she pushes the character through a gauntlet of emotional and physical barriers. The film depicts graphic and sickening domestic violence at the hands of her husband (Sebastian Stan), as well as heartbreaking psychological abuse from her reprehensible mother (Allison Janney), and Robbie reaches incredible depths to depict the required vulnerability and strength to survive.
Stan’s performance as Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, is a courageous piece of acting, which also has him venturing into dark places. At times completely charming, while at other times monstrous, his portrayal of Gillooly is carefully measured and compelling. It would be a completely remarkable support performance unto itself if it weren’t for Janney’s mind-blowing portrayal of Harding’s disgusting mother. This would have to be amongst the greatest performances of the past 12 months, and easily her finest hour to date. The actress manifests such levels of disgust that watching her on screen is as awe-inspiring as it is dumbfounding. And with notable added support from Paul Walter Hauser (who is just so, so good) as Gillooly’s doofus cohort, and Julianne Nicholson as Harding’s ever-patient coach, there is no denying that I, Tonya is a performance-driven film that showcases as much talent as the figures within the story itself.
The film was directed by Craig Gillespie, whose own filmography shows a multifaceted talent. From the bittersweet comedy of Lars and the Real Girl to the dramatic adventures of The Finest Hour and Million Dollar Arm, to dabbling in horror with the remake of Fright Night, his capabilities stretch further than the confines of any one genre. I, Tonya finds Gillespie delivering a multilayered picture that breaks conventions with an assortment of story-telling techniques. Mockumentary inserts are woven throughout the narrative as the figures recall their versions of events, and while their actions are presented traditionally, the characters break through the fourth wall to point out various truths and facts about the story. It all adheres to an absorbing, authentic and thoroughly engrossing piece of cinema.
The film is also a technical achievement, capturing some of the most spectacular figure skating ever put on screen, and without having investigated the production itself, it’s difficult to determine how so much of it was achieved; I would assume a combination of Robbie’s own training, skating doubles and a touch of motion-capture augmentation. Whatever the case, the skating scenes are seamless and breathtaking to watch. Throw in a fantastic soundtrack, archival footage and authentic costume design, and we have a very special film indeed; one that I can’t imagine falling outside of this year’s top 10 list.
It is important to note that I, Tonya depicts various accounts of just one side of this story, and it does not tell Nancy Kerrigan’s story at all. Her character is relegated to a few throwaway moments, cast aside to facilitate an entertaining narrative. And yet, while there is no denying that Kerrigan was the true victim in the whole sordid mess, we come away from the film questioning whether or not Harding orchestrated the attack, was complaisant in it, or was simply caught up in it through no real fault of her own. I was also left with little doubt that, regardless of her part, Harding has paid for her sins… and then some.