Margot Robbie stars in Craig Gillespie’s feature that tells the story of Tonya Harding – the first American woman to perform a triple axel in competitive figure skating; the film looks at her childhood, forced into competition by her harsh, unrelenting mother (Allison Janney), her volatile marriage to abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her quest to become the ultimate skating champion at the Olympics, and the downturn of her skating career owing to an infamous national scandal in which Gillooly inadvertently arranged to have Tonya’s main competitor’s knee broken.
In the leading role, Margot Robbie is a great fit as the troubled Tonya Harding – she really commits to the role and her transformative performance allows her to truly become this real life figure. She appears believably hot-tempered and volatile in many scenes, dishing out the swearing and insults with panache when required and working very well with the film’s signature brand of dark comedy, but she also convinces in the slower, more emotionally charged scenes and we can easily sympathise with her as she suffers the abuse and unfair treatment of her mother, husband and contest judges as she tries to make it as a champion, against all those who try to keep her down.
However, Tonya does have a tendency to blame others when things don’t go her way and it’s in instances like this, also taking into account her brash, uncompromising attitude, where we get to see her character flaws – we support her on her life’s mission but also get to see her imperfections and her darker, more damaged side. Currently, Robbie has an Academy Award nomination for her performance and while it’s very unlikely that she’ll win, her acting turn in this film is a worthy addition to her filmography.
My only real issue with her casting is the section where she apparently plays Tonya at fifteen years old; honestly, this was a little off-putting because watching her amongst a cast of young girls, clearly looking around twelve years older than them, was too distracting and odd. The film may have benefited with Robbie stepping back for around twenty minutes, letting a more appropriately aged actor take the reigns for a brief spell. But at least the young Tonya is played by Gifted‘s mighty Mckenna Grace – it’s so great to see her in yet another big feature.
The supporting cast is impressive and strengthen the film quite admirably; Sebastian Stan (sporting a moustache that would make Henry Cavill jealous) provides strong support as the infamous Jeff Gillooly, often appearing as the vicious, violent brute while also sometimes being a sad, petty, lonely loser and the amazing Bobby Cannavale has a brief but excellent almost-cameo as the heavily tanned, bad haired Hard Copy producer, participating in the funniest section of the film but not actually getting to interact with any of the other actors, which is a shame.
We also have Paul Walter Hauser as the inherently memorable and inept Shawn Eckhardt – a self appointed bodyguard and counter-espionage agent who gets insanely, and hilariously, in over his head as he takes it upon himself to mastermind the ill-fated “incident” – and of course, there’s the Oscar-nominated performance of the amazing Allison Janney, who constantly steals scenes from everyone as the tough, uncompromising and foul-mouthed LaVona Harding; she nails every line, delivers the dark comedy and is a very worthy oppressive figure to be overcome – an abusive maternal figure and a brutal “mentor” to Tonya (her character apparently having graduated from the Whiplash school of teaching . . . )
I, Tonya has a good story and it is perfectly informative and enlightening to any who don’t have any prior knowledge of Tonya Harding or Jeff Gillooly, myself included; the film manages to avoid genre cliche and it doesn’t fall into the trap of being an average underdog/rags to riches type story. This is achieved through a particular style – through Margot Robbie’s constant fourth wall breaking and by having older versions of several characters giving interviews, looking out at and speaking directly to the audience, different characters narrating different parts of the story, often interrupting each other as they all dispute what actually happened. Through this, the film successfully keeps things interesting, immersive and unpredictable, shaking things up as it plays fast and loose with the facts; through its unreliable narrators, we get to learn about the important events whilst also being aware that it’s a partly fictional retelling of events, not a stale and joyless biopic.
I would say, though, that the story takes a little bit of time to fully get into gear and the section that covers Tonya and Jeff’s early relationship could have been trimmed a little. It’s also a little irksome that it goes around in circles a bit – with Tonya and Jeff in love, then trying to kill each other, then making up, and then starting all over again. As I say, it could have been trimmed a little bit, though ultimately it’s all necessary for proper character development and when it eventually gets into the meat of the story, “the incident”, that’s when the film truly hits its stride as this middle section is very entertaining and it’s incredibly easy to lose track of time and to be fully invested in the experience.
On a technical level, I, Tonya is alright since the production design is very appealing and the skating routines are expertly choreographed but the CG effects aren’t perfect as the use of body doubles and possibly greenscreening is too obvious and certain skating shots look very artificial and fake. A great deal of the first act also overuses handheld camerawork and the camera absolutely refuses to keep still – so with a barrage of camera movement and some absolutely frantic, close up skating sequences, I was rendered completely dizzy within a short amount of time! The film also has a great jukebox soundtrack, featuring a multitude of songs from artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Hot Chocolate, Doris Day and Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose cover version of “The Passenger”, played during the credits over footage of the real Tonya Harding skating, is really awesome. And on that note, the use of actual interview clips and whatnot, though surely a biopic staple, is very well used.