I, Tonya, in shape, form, and execution, is spectacular. Who knew that a story so ugly depicting a character so abused could grace the screen with such elegance?
Director Craig Gillespie’s bitter mockumentary has achieved a humorous, yet admirably balanced tone in this fictionalized retelling of the 1994 attack on Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), our anti-hero thrust into the center of this controversy after being implicated in the attack with her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), is now shown in a more forgiving light. Gillespie has, incredibly, achieved an impressive feat in presenting Harding as human, much unlike the onslaught of insults rendered from the media coverage at the time of the scandal. (She was called “white trash” and “thunder thighs.”) The filmmaking is genuine, the acting is a marvel, and even if you’re not familiar with the Harding story, the narrative is undoubtedly compelling.
Since this film is based on wildly contradictory and both real and invented interviews with Harding, Gillooly, Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), and her skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), the resulting story is equally entertaining as it is harrowing. Both a tale of her public success and personal trauma, the latter being a part of her life downplayed by media outlets at all times in her career, I, Tonya constantly blends its humor with a bitter dramatic side, a decision many have not enjoyed.
Harding, from the inception of this movie, shifts between different abusers, most notably her mother and now ex-husband Gillooly, who have kicked her off a chair, slammed her head against a mirror, threw a knife at her arm, and aimed a gun at her, etc. Yet, in some, miraculous way, this movie is hilarious. The comedy fits in nicely ;a result of Steven Rogers’ impeccable screenplay and perfectly timed, and sometimes too on-the-nose, song choices. For example, “Goodbye Stranger” plays in the background of an excellently choreographed shot that meanders through Harding’s and Gillooly’s house after she divorces him. Surprisingly, it works, and it’s because of the humor behind it that it does.
I don’t mean for that to come off as a hearty laugh at her struggles, but this movie inextricably meshes drama and adversity with comedy in a way many other films haven’t been able to. Perhaps it’s because it pokes fun at the whole affair;the ridiculousness of ‘The Incident’ and the events that follow it, the archaic standards of femininity for Olympic skaters, and the ignoble rise and fall of, “the best figure skater in the word.” Either way, the comedy is a point both well-taken and well-executed.
Robbie is killer as the tough and angry Harding. Showcasing talent unseen in her other films, she hits this character in all the right places. Robbie is both humbling and abrasive, pitiable and strong. Her face says it all; though she disappears into Harding’s dialogue with emphatic brilliance, it is the silent anger at her mother, her unstated sadness with not being good enough, or her breathless joy when she finally lands that triple axel that makes Robbie’s performance so memorable. Everything spoken is just as unforgettable as the things unuttered.
Stan as Harding’s counterpart Gillooly is surprisingly intriguing as well. The two of them have the most incredible chemistry, especially in the scenes when they fight. Almost like two dancers, they circle each other, giving and taking, ebbing and flowing. It’s a gorgeous connection, albeit one that resulted in many bruises on both ends.
However enrapturing Robbie’s and Stan’s performances are, the highest accolade in this film should be given to Allison Janney. Her impeccable rendition of Harding’s abusive mother is nothing short of bitter, and driven, and heartless. Yet, there is an underlying feeling of sadness, a tired ache in Golden that, to her, justifies the abuse she used to control her daughter in her youth. Janney brings this to life (ironically) so beautifully. Her character will surely be hated; her performance, however, will not.