Even if you do not follow Olympic figure skating, chances are you have heard of Tonya Harding-and probably not much good. Craig Gillespie’s new film I, Tonya aims to set the record straight, or at least provide mitigating circumstances for her behavior. The result is a darkly comic film with real-life villains straight out of the Coen brothers. I, Tonya does not exonerate Harding, but it generates more sympathy for her than you might expect, largely due to a stellar performance by Margot Robbie in the title role.
Steven Rogers wrote the script, which features interviews with the people in Harding’s life. There is a focus on key figures, like Tonya’s elegant skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), her dimwitted husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her equally dimwitted and self-appointed “bodyguard” Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), and her vicious mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, in a magnificent though creepy performance).
LaVona raises Tonya largely as a single mother, waitressing to pay for her child’s skating lessons. This is not the loving, selfless act it might appear; LaVona is ambitious on Tonya’s behalf, but she is also fiercely jealous of her talented daughter. She abuses Tonya physically and verbally while discouraging her from making friends. Gillespie and Rogers do not shrink from depicting the violence against Tonya, but they also include numerous scenes to show LaVona is an equal opportunity abuser.
The economic status of the Golden/Harding family is an undercurrent in the story. It is hard to watch the scenes where coach Diane asks LaVona to get a fur coat and promotional pictures for Tonya. LaVona’s cut-rate methods of obtaining them are both embarrassing for Tonya. This has the effect of further alienating Tonya from her classmates.
Eventually, Tonya does meet Jeff, who is the first man to say she is pretty. They marry and have a brief period of happiness before he starts abusing her. She leaves him but keeps trying to reconcile.
Tonya Harding grows up to be an incredibly athletic female skater, one of the few able to pull off a triple axel in competition. Unfortunately, ability means less to the figure skating establishment than “presentation”. The skating elites do not want a working class champion; they are looking for patrician skaters like Nancy Kerrigan. Despite her technical accomplishments, Tonya’s scores in competition tend to be lower than her rival’s.
The two skaters competed to be part of the 1994 Winter Olympics to be held in Lillehammer, Norway that February. January 1994 gives rise to a brutal and bizarre event that all interviewees call “the incident”. Shawn and Jeff hire a couple of men to stalk Nancy Kerrigan. One of them strikes Kerrigan in the knee after a training session. The idea is to “even the odds” in Tonya’s favor.
I, Tonya becomes a different film at this point, morphing into a seriocomic tale of botched crime that resembles lesser Coen Brothers or Martin McDonagh. Inept Momma’s boy Shawn and his two hired goons come off as caricatures of caricatures. After this funny but brief interlude, Gillespie goes back to the prior format to conclude the story. There is even the requisite “Where Are They Now?’ update at the end.
The subject matter is anything but subtle, so it should not come as a surprise that Gillespie attacks it head on. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ camerawork and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing are nothing short of frenetic at times. Though the musical choices seem apt, sometimes they feel a little like audio underlining (“Goodbye Stranger” “Barracuda”).
But in the end, all that matters is whether the story and its subjects are adequately conveyed. I may not agree with all of Gillespie’s methods, but I have to acknowledge his end result. He has brought this tale to life, in all its tawdry glory.
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