I, Tonya -This Movie Rocks Its Lutzes Axels Pirouettes & Twirls
Dir: Craig Gillespie
Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Alison Janney, Bobby Cannavale
The story of US Winter Olympic competitor Tonya Harding and her arch competitor Nancy Kerrigan is a notorious one and, as this film cleverly demonstrates, one that has already become subject to “print the legend” mythology. Indeed, a great deal of the fun in Steven Rogers’ script (and subsequently in the all round excellent performances) is the Chinese whispers nature of the events that unfold here, and how the truth nimbly flits between all of the participants.
What we do know is that Harding (Robbie at a career best) was a girl who grew up with two things in her life – a desire to be a figure skater, and a constant level of various forms of abuse, both mental and physical, first from her monster of a mother (a genius-level Janney) and then from her means of escape, her not too bright and quick to lash out husband Jeff (Stan, more than holding his own.) As wrong side of the tracks Tonya struggles to reach her potential, a mixture of those around her and, to a degree, her own personality conspire to confound her, culminating in the infamous assault on her teammate and rival Nancy Corrigan, just prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Told in a light and frothy manner for the most part– but always with a strong sense of pathos – Gillespie’s film has two main strengths – its cast, and its understanding of its central figures. Firstly, Robbie and Janney are nomination bound, both giving exemplary performances. Janney never shies away from the sheer unpleasantness of her matriarch, showing ugly even more than ugly is needed here. It’s a brave, uncompromising turn and it is a testament to both her and her director that some slivers of very dark humour are still allowed to shine through (even when she breaks the fourth wall and complains that the script is marginalising her as a character.)
It is Robbie whoever who dominates. Not only does she bring a level of vulnerability to Harding, a character who initially appears to be her own worst enemy, but she displays a level of empathy that really translates off the screen. It is a simply brilliant performance and one that should see her taking her rightful place in this year’s numerous Best Actress nominations. (And if she doesn’t, someone could well end up with a busted leg or two.)
As the third wheel in all this, Sebastian Stan has the less showy role as Tonya’s abusive and deeply insecure (and not overly smart) hubby Jeff, and he brings far more to the role than such a one-dimensional description implies.
Gillespie moves his film along at a right old clip, making the most of Rogers’ inventive script, which plays with expectation and form both, not only mixing knowing talking heads, but also adding moments that allow our unreliable narrators to break out and address the audience directly, always unbalancing the veracity of the events being depicted.
As good as it is however, it does miss a trick. Gillespie is strong at conveying the various angles of the story, but never really finds an overall point of view. There’s a feeling that this is more filmic reportage rather than, say, something satirical, which at times the movie seems to cry out for. You wonder what someone like Michael Richie would have made of this, or even Altman. (Or especially Scorsese - to whom Gillespie owes a clear debt here, not least in the deployment of his excellent period soundtrack.)
But that’s a minor quibble. What I, Tonya is is distinctly edifying, funny, warm at times and very winning. All that, and two of the finest performances of the year.
(On a side note – a few years back, the great Loudon Wainwright wrote a song about Tonya Harding, which managed to do exactly what this film does so well. It takes the media demonised version of her and finds a way to truly humanise her in the end. No mean feat, in film or in song. Have a listen at the bottom if you like.)
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