Since starting this website I’ve written reviews for a number of biopics, particularly with the rush of Oscar-bait pictures before the Academy Awards in March. I, Tonya sets a new standard against which they should all be judged, as director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers strive to reinvent the public perception of controversial figure skater Tonya Harding through a fast-paced, comically tragic feature that uses the truth as a toy.
Framed in a mockumentary style, Rogers’s script utilises interviews with Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her mother LaVona Fay Golden, and her coach Diane Rawlinson as they all share very different perspective on the events leading up to and including the famous 1994 attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The contradictory narration from each character provides a refreshing twist on a narrative technique that’s often used to hide bad writing, as the main figures of the story will interrupt their own scenes to defend themselves from more outlandish accusations or assure the audience that yes – some of these things did really happen. At times Gillespie’s direction seems to be paying homage to classic Scorsese works, particularly the fourth-wall breaking of Goodfellas or the in-the-ring camera work of Raging Bull, but to accuse him of simple imitation would be a disservice. There’s a tremendous speed to this film, with cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis rarely keeping the camera still as it moves through the Harding household during one of Tonya and Jeff’s violent arguments or follows her through her routines. The camera work and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing operate in tandem to join together various moments of Tonya’s life, with days depicted in single unbroken shots and Tanya’s past and future intercut to demonstrate her highs and lows. Similarly, the comic and the tragic are balanced brilliantly, as the hilariously colourful insults the characters throw at each other turn dark as they move into physical and psychological abuse, or moments of genuine vulnerability are met with audacious responses.
Unsurprisingly the characters in I, Tonya operate in a fairly dark moral plane, ranging from the abusive to the dangerously dumb. The entire cast don’t hold back from showcasing the worst traits of their characters as their performances suggest how they came to get that way – particularly Margot Robbie and Alison Janney as Tonya and LaVona. This is easily the best performance of Robbie’s career, presenting the hard edge Harding has had to build as well as the desperation she feels to prove herself. Her expressions often say more than Rogers’ script ever could, looking directly into the camera in moments of ecstatic triumph, deranged determination, and broken despair. Robbie makes a woman who has been vilified by the media remarkably sympathetic without portraying her as an innocent; she’s not America’s sweetheart and she’s not a monster, but a complicated woman who has been abused much of her life. As she herself states, “for a moment I was loved, then I was hated.” One notable moment has Robbie decrying the media while speaking directly at the camera, and it was as if I could feel the real Tonya Harding’s anger extending out from beyond the movie. Janney, who has been consistently excelling in supporting roles since The West Wing finished, is finally given another part to display her considerable talents and range as she hurls out curses and cutting remarks to anyone who challenges her. Janney displays a world-weariness and anger that she takes out on Tonya with a weak excuse that it makes her a better skater, performed in a way that suggests she doesn’t even believe her own lies but can’t connect to her daughter any other way. Rounding out the cast is Sebastian Stan as Jeff, who alternates between doting on Tonya and beating her, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Tonya’s deluded incompetent bodyguard who is so ridiculous that Gillespie has to show footage of the real man over the end credits to make it clear that they didn’t invent some of his more absurd claims.
I, Tonya does a remarkable job bringing together multiple perspectives and accounts of Harding’s life, presenting a multifaceted depiction of a woman who has been treated as a one-dimensional joke for much of her life, and yet there is a significant absence that can’t help but prevent the story from reaching its true potential. Nancy Kerrigan is barely featured at all, and spoken about by others rather than getting to speak for herself. It’s unclear whether this omission was due to a real-life refusal from Kerrigan to take part or simply a decision to keep the story centred around Harding, but a film that aims to redeem her can’t quite pull it off by brushing over a figure who is that important to her life. Admittedly I, Tonya never claims to be the absolute truth about Harding, and by presenting reality as the characters remember it Gillespie is able to make a biopic more entertaining and nuanced that most, but with so many voices being heard the absence of such a significant one is distractingly evident.
4 and a half stars.