The name “Tonya Harding” may seem completely foreign to most Singaporeans, but at the height of her infamy, the American figure skater’s name was in headlines all over the world. It turned out that her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly hired goons to injure her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan mere months before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
With those facts established, director Craig Gillespie weaves an immensely compelling story that shows how Tonya (Margot Robbie) clawed her way to the top of the skating ranks despite being physically and verbally abused by her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) and her boyfriend, then husband, then ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan). But when The Incident involving Nancy Kerrigan happens, the turbulence of Tonya’s personal life finally upends everything.
I, Tonya is that rare movie that is not so much a whodunnit as it is a whydunnit. Filmed mockumentary style, the premise is that it’s based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews conducted with older versions of Jeff, Tonya and LaVona. What follows is a brutal, unflinchingly frank depiction of a talented girl who grew up with an abusive mother and managed to escape her grasp, only to run straight into the arms of a man who hit her as often as he told her he loved her.
But this is a black comedy, and Gillespie takes full advantage to explore both extremes of the genre in this enjoyable (if unsettling) depiction of one of figure skating’s greatest dramas. The movie manages to walk that fine line between satire and tragedy all too well, and I found myself laughing along whenever characters broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience directly.
It’s hard not to sympathise with the movie’s eponymous character. That said, the phrase “it’s not my fault” gets thrown about so much by everyone that it’s not long before you start to wonder exactly who or what is to blame here. While it’s true that Tonya’s rough background didn’t endear her in a sport where appearances and class still matter, it’s also true that she refused to play ball despite the advice of her long suffering coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and with each repeated “not my fault”, Tonya’s denials start to sound more and more lame.
It’s rare that any of the characters take any responsibility for the things they’ve done. And even if they do, what they claim to have done contradicts so much with what is shown in asides and from other people’s perspectives that it’s hard to tell where reality ends and where fiction begins. With such unreliable narrators, the audience is given surprisingly free rein to decide for themselves what truth they want to believe.
What is beyond doubt is that I, Tonya benefits from some remarkable performances from the cast. Robbie and Stan’s most famous roles are as Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad (see our review) and as Bucky Barnes from the MCU (see our Captain America: Civil War review), but here they disappear fully into their characters with the help of hair spray and a late 1980s wardrobe.
Stan plays Jeff as an insecure man who careens between shy and abusive in a split second. He was so convincing that I found myself getting uncomfortable at his portrayal of a thoroughly manipulative beta male. Similarly, Robbie plays the part of Tonya with aplomb, wearing an expression of naked joy when she becomes the first American woman to land the dreaded triple axel jump in competition. She gives Tonya just enough vulnerability to get the audience on her side.
But Janney’s portrayal of LaVona’s psychopathy was nothing short of riveting, even if it did make me flinch far too much. LaVona is little more than a violent, mercurial harridan who lashes out at her daughter whenever she doesn’t perform to her exacting standards.
One last thing: If you do see the movie, make sure you stay for the credits to see archival footage of interviews conducted with the real people connected to the case (yes, that parrot WAS a real detail). You’ll also get to see footage of the real Tonya Harding attempting and landing that famous triple axel in competition. It’s clear that she was once an extremely talented skater, and one wonders what she could’ve been capable of had the attack on Nancy Kerrigan not happened.
I, Tonya is out in Singapore theatres today.