I, Tonya

Roanne Flanagan
29th Jan 2018

Media circuses and public backlash can muddy the waters for decades. Few people know this better than former figure skater Tonya Harding, whose role in the planned crippling of friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan left her "the most hated woman in America." The awkwardly titled I, Tonya tells the story of the maligned figure, but rather than playing devil's advocate reveals a balanced and morally complex tale of woe behind the apparently glamorous fairytale of professional figure skating.

Awkward the title may be, but director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers have crafted a taut and kinetic experience that is funny and dynamic even while exploring the misery of a broken home and chronic domestic abuse. The film presents a set of characters that are either deeply sympathetic or amusing in their abhorrence, topped off with delicious period details and a brilliant soundtrack.

For young Tonya Harding (Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and finally Margot Robbie), whose home life with her domineering and physically abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is one of constant self-doubt and trying in vain to win her mother's approval, ice skating is an escape. Even when her natural talent takes her to the big leagues, though, she's disparaged for her home-sewn costumes and her choice of music. It seems she'll forever be Portland white trash.

But Tonya is eminently talented. The skating sequences, while the CGI used to place Margot Robbie's expressive performance onto a body double is somewhat distracting, are thrilling and often nail-biting, capturing the distinctively sharp moves of the real Tonya Harding on the ice. There is a true cohesion between these sequences and the rest of the movie, cutting between sharp and incisive scenes off the ice and hilarious faux-documentary interviews with the cast.

In the movie's final act, it's inevitable that the focus shifts slightly from the titular character - played with astonishing assurance and gravity in a major breakthrough for Robbie - to the architects of her downfall. The movie's pace sags with the less magnetic characters of Jeff (Sebastian Stan), Tonya's husband, and Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), her bodyguard taking the lead, but there's no other way the story could have been told. The gravitas of the film's ending brings the focus back to Tonya with a stunning emotional climax.

I, Tonya isn't perfect, but with its gripping, undulating narrative and a pair of performances from Robbie and Janney worthy of massive amount of praise, it feels like a triumph. Few biographical sports dramas are this memorable and this intriguing, with the story told feeling fresh and different despite being an integral part of the pop culture zeitgeist of the past two decades. It could have been a trainwreck, but I, Tonya is special. 

I, Tonya is open in Australian cinemas now.