Film Review: I, Tonya (2017)
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This film was not on the top of my “must see” list but it should be on yours. My accidental screening mix-up was a complete revelation. This is a very powerful tour de force of exceptional direction of extraordinary actors and a compelling story telling technique which conjures up Rashomon in the shifting points of view which are used tell the fairly sordid story of Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) climb to the heights of figure skating Olympic stardom and her precipitous fall from grace.
I admit to being part of the demographic which found Tonia Harding’s presentation less than appealing. It was prejudicial and unrelated to her clearly superior athleticism. And, as this film elucidates, it was similarly the sentiment of the judges of the competitions which are the prerequisites for Olympic eligibility. She was negatively judged by those with the power based on her lack of elegance, the tackiness of her costumes, and the aggressiveness of her skating and her personal style.
The fact that she achieved the level of excellence as “the first female to perform the triple axel” was enough to get her into the Olympics. She was tragically derailed by the misguided efforts of her abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his completely deadbeat best friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who fancies himself as a “fixer” with some delusional experience as a secret agent. This episode is tragic in its execution and consequences. Unbeknownst to Harding, the guys hatch a hair-brained scheme to injure her primary competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, by bashing her in the knee which takes her out of competition for a time. This is the singular event which has defined Tonya Harding for all who are familiar with her.
As the police begin to close in on them, they all begin to turn on each other and Tonya is unfairly implicated. When “justice” is meted out it is Tonya who is punished the most harshly. She is banished from skating permanently. She is heartbreaking in her pleading to the judge. She begs for jail time rather than the skating ban - as it all that she knows. By this time she has earned all of our sympathy. It is she who is the victim of her harsh upbringing. Her skating coach is her only ally and support. Unfortunately, Tonya seems unable to disconnect from all of the negative forces in her life to find expression.
It is the backstory which is the core of the film and it is cleverly presented which keeps it from getting too melodramatic. The details of Tonya’s hardscrabble, blue collar upbringing with an absent father, and a martinet of a mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) who is physically and emotionally abusive explain the evolution of Tonya’s fiery and pugnacious personality. LaVona is terrifyingly cruel and soul-destroying in her manipulation of the young Tonya who falls for the first opportunity at rescue in the form of Jeff, whom she marries but who turns out to be another violently abusive oppressor.
The structure takes a quasi-documentary form with individual interviews with each of the characters telling their version of events speaking directly to the camera and expressing their points of view. This is interspersed with the actual dramatizations of the events. This has the effect of lightening up what could be a deeply disturbing dark story. In particular, it can be very droll, as each of them injects their own justifications and self-exonerations which are often in sharp contrast to actual events being juxtaposed.
Margot Robbie creates a complex character who is so damaged that she sabotages herself with her terrible uncontrolled temper and yet is desperately seeking love, approval and acceptance. She is extremely appealing and very relatable and takes her knocks like a man. Jeff is just a misguided bully who gets in over his head with the driven, strong-willed, overwhelmingly needy Tonya. LaVona is the most unappealing character since Cruella DeVille. Allison Janney creates a nightmare portrait of a tiger mom who never reveals a moment of mother love. For her Tonya is a vehicle for her to act out revenge and ambition. Hers is an unforgettable portrait of bitterness and disappointment. It is ultimately a pretty tragic story and re-writes the history of Tonya Harding with a great deal of well-deserved empathy. And, of course, there is some breathtaking skating.