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As we are reliably informed in the opening titles, I,Tonya is a story based on the “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews with shamed former figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). It’s a zany, offbeat portrayal of one of the most infamous sporting controversies that enthralled most of the western world in the last decade of the 20th century.
I,Tonya takes on a ‘mockumentary’ style framework mixing interviews with the key players and a chronological telling of Tonya’s rise and fall. The film plays in two acts; Tonya’s tough ascension through the world of figure skating and then the ‘incident’, the assault on rival Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya’s tragic downfall.
As a child she was indisputably talented on the ice but suffered brutally at the hands of her mother LaVone Harding (played by the inexorably talented Allison Janney). With no educational background but her talent for skating, she met Jeff who offered her a way out of her suffocating existence with her mother. Once married, she discovers Jeff also has an abusive streak and enters a perennial cycle of abuse and torment that only seems to embolden Tonya with a bullish determination to succeed.
A self-confessed redneck, Tonya faced severe ridicule from figure skating community who disapproved of her working class background and her refusal to give them someone more ‘wholesomely American.’ Desperate to be judged on her technical merit alone, she found herself battling against some of the more refined competitors like Nancy Kerrigan.
Director Craig Gillespie treads a careful line between working class mockery and genuine affection in his portrayal of Tonya and just about finds the right balance of dark humour and tragedy in a story of a woman who is relentlessly abused for most of her life. The story is a tad choppy but largely because it sticks to a source material that is littered with exaggerated truths and fallacies. For those of us under thirty, the story of Tonya Harding will be largely unfamiliar and therefore feel all the more outrageously unbelievable.
Robbie delivers a solid performance as a much slicker version of Harding but the real stand out is Allison Janney as her mother. Unabatedly brutal and brimming with monstrously vile put-downs and off the cuff remarks (“I’m a gardner who wants to be a flower – how f**king f**ked am I?”). Janney maximises her comedic prowess to the zenith and every scene she isn’t in feels a little less full.
As Harding’s character is the titular focus, there’s little affordance given to characterisation elsewhere. Which would have been fine if Robbie were a stronger actress, however she occasionally loses her ability to carry the movie leaving us feeling a little lost without the interplay between Harding and her mother. Sebastian Stan as her husband Jeff is forgettable and Paul Walter Hauser as Tonya’s delusional self-proclaimed bodyguard felt like a missed opportunity for comedy gold.
In the end what keeps us watching is mere morbid curiosity as the bizarre climax of the story begins to unfold. As biopics go, it’s not dull, but it’s not quite as sharp or as funny as it could have been.