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I, Tonya is a bleakly hilarious tale of absolute unrepentance. It’s based on the true story of US figure skater Tonya Harding: reviled as the blue-collar, white-trash, black-hearted villain who at the very least attempted to cover up her ex-husband Jeff’s grotesque assault on her rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. He’d hired a couple of chaotic goons in 1994 to whack Nancy in the knee with a baton.
Margot Robbie gives a fantastically uninhibited performance as Tonya, fighting her way to the top from humble beginnings, frizzy of hair, angry of demeanour, often bringing out a raptor grimace on the ice, denoting pain or gloating triumph. Robbie has to suppress her natural glamour and poise for this: she is perhaps more obvious casting in a film called I, Nancy. Getting her to play both women would have been interesting.
Allison Janney almost pinches the entire film with her award-winning performance as LaVona, Tonya’s chain-smoking mom-slash-personal manager who believes in the motivational power of abuse. Timidly asked by someone to put her cigarette out while on the rink, LaVona snarls: “I’ll smoke quietly.” As with every film of this sort, there’s a debate to be had about accuracy. But one part I suspect is absolutely true to its subject. It never shows the smallest concern or sympathy about Nancy and her knee, and whether it hurt, and how she felt.
It is difficult to tell how lenient or even celebratory the film is being. Screen Tonya effectively asks us: Nancy got hit? Me too! Tonya got slapped around all the time growing up, by her mother and then by Jeff. She was discriminated against by snobbish judges who gave higher marks to less talented female skaters, those pampered princesses with picture-perfect smiles and non-trailerpark attitudes. And though the menfolk got prison time for the Nancy hit, Tonya got a fine and a permanent skating ban: a life sentence, even a kind of emotional death sentence. So should Nancy stop whining about her knee, because Tonya is the real victim? Even the tongue-in-cheek heroine? A tricky one, as this film does a bit of slippery soliloquising towards the end about the truth being relative and subjective. Wait – even the truth about Tonya getting beaten up?
The story is framed in a slightly tiresome mockumentary style, with the chief players (though not poor irrelevant old Nancy) interviewed in aged-up makeup, reflecting on those unhappy times. Inevitably, Janney – still grumpy, now breathing with an oxygen tank and snapping at the pet parrot on her shoulder – is even funnier in these sections. There’s a lot of Goodfellas-style voiceover and even some fourth-wall-breaking asides to the camera. These mannerisms are a little distracting, and the film works better when Janney and Robbie are giving us their performances straight.
Tonya’s dad absents himself from the scene early on, and it’s LaVona who butts heads to get her little girl accepted by the toffee-nosed skating authorities. Soon, Tonya’s aggressively hungry style and technical panache get results, though unlike Will Ferrell’s legendary Chazz Michael Michaels in the comedy Blades of Glory, Tonya’s swaggering approach is tolerated, not loved. Her violent and inadequate husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) feels emasculated by his wife’s success, an attitude that curdles even further with the end of their marriage, and with his dodgy drinking buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) he starts cooking up macho ideas to intimidate Tonya’s opponents.
In some ways, the story of Tonya Harding is like another sensational scandal, now being filmed: the tragi-farcical tale of British MP Jeremy Thorpe. He also had to hire, through a middleman, some incompetent idiot to carry out a deniable act of violence. Non-criminals don’t know how to hire professional competent hitmen; it is furthermore that firebreak of deniability, intended to preserve the perpetrator’s innocence, which creates the bizarre chaos.
I. Tonya is one of those rare films that gets better as it continues. Robbie grows into her role and she has a fascinating moment towards the very end: Tonya’s last skate, as the authorities are closing in and she knows the game is up. Her face is a mask of stricken denial, masquerading as the usual showbizzy beam, and Robbie very convincingly shows how Harding subconsciously contrives a nonsensical problem with the laces on her boot, as a way of sabotaging the whole business. She is finally flinching from the ordeal of skating under a burden of fear, shame, resentment – and a useless husband. That part of the film, the part about culpable Jeff and his loathsome delusional pal, has the ring of absolute truth.
Source: The Guardian
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