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Review: I, Tonya

January 22, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

When most people hear the name of figure skater Tonya Harding, they recall the 1994 incident when her rival Nancy Kerrigan’s knee was bashed in, mere weeks before they were both set to compete at the Olympics in Lilliehammer, Norway.

But the truth is that she wasn’t even involved in the incident, and it’s only part of her life story, despite being what has made her infamous.  What I, Tonya aims to do is give Tonya Harding the fair shake that she deserves by allowing her to tell her side of events, allowing us to see her in a different light.

Tonya Harding is played by Margot Robbie, who also produced the film, and she gives a knockout performance that adds layers of depth to the notorious figure skater, ensuring that we are not only compelled by her story but also end up sympathizing with her.  It’s a marvellous feat, allowing us to see humanity behind someone who had long since been written off by many as the source of tabloid curiosity.  The Tonya Harding that we see here is someone who has been abused by both her mother (Allison Janney) and eventually her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and she sees figure skating has her only source of escape.

The film works because it digs deep into Tonya Harding as a person instead of just focusing on the more infamous elements of her skating career, exploring the toxic relationship that she has with her mother, and the extreme poverty that she grew up in and was never able to escape.  This provides another barrier between her and the affluent, elitist world of figure skating, and no matter how hard she tries to fit in, they make her feel like an outsider.  Because she is unable to afford buying the costumes, she has to make them herself, and is mocked and harshly judged for it.

We only get to the Nancy Kerrigan incident about halfway through – the plan was masterminded by her husband and his grandiose and mentally unstable friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who was also acting as her bodyguard – and the film is clear to show that Harding had no idea that Kerrigan’s knee was going to get bashed in.  This detail is especially of note, considering that she has unfairly taken much of the heat for the assault on her competitor over the years.

Director Craig Gillespie – who has a history of pulling off films that in theory might not work, from his phenomenal debut a decade ago with Lars and the Real Girl to his surprisingly great remake of Fright Night – has pulled off something pretty incredible with I, Tonya.  The film has a style and tone that feels like an amalgamation of the Coen Brothers, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese, mixing elements of dark comedy, crime caper and character drama in a package that works as a wild cinematic trip.

This all adds up to a film that’s gripping, entertaining, and stylish as hell, subverting the usual biopic formula to offer something that feels fresh and exciting.  I haven’t even mentioned yet the fact that the film operates with a unique mix of mockumentary-style interviews, fourth wall breaking moments, and an instantly memorable soundtrack of classic songs.  These stylistic touches always work in favour of telling the story, helping put us directly into the mindset of the characters.

The film really gets into the mindset of a domestic abuse survivor, and why someone would end up staying in an abusive relationship.  There is a startling moment when Tonya looks directly into the camera and addresses the audience while she is being beaten by her husband, forcing us to not only witness the violence but also to confront it.  We are no longer just bystanders, we are actively a part of it, and this is one of the most powerful aspects of the film.  Right in the midst of being hit, she tells us that she is accepting the abuse from her husband because she was abused by her mother, driving home the fact that she is stuck in a cycle of violence that threatens to keep going in circles.

As we already know from her performances in The Wolf of Wall Street and, yes, even Suicide Squad – in which she transcended the material itself to become the best part of that otherwise uneven comic book film – Margot Robbie is one of our most compelling actresses.  She once again commands the screen here, portraying Harding as charismatic and headstrong, but also with a broken vulnerability beneath the surface that really allows us to empathize with her.  Allison Janney is equally gripping to watch as her foul-mouthed, chain smoking mother, in the sort of performance we can’t look away from.

This is a movie for Trump’s America, a portrait of “forgotten people” who are looked down upon by the upper echelons of society and just want to be treated as something more than dirt for once.  The film not only works as a wildly entertaining dark comedy about dimwitted criminals, but also as a sobering look at class struggles and the cycle of domestic violence.  All Tonya wants is to be respected.  By her mother, by her husband, by her competitors, by the judges, and by the media, who never seem to give her a fair chance to prove herself.  What I, Tonya does is allow us to have newfound sympathy for Tonya Harding, and that’s a remarkable thing indeed.

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