Thanks to Roadshow Films we had the chance to see Craig Gillespie’s, I, Tonya at its Australian premiere. This is our review of the movie, but as usual, no matter what we say, we still recommend you to go and see it at your local cinema because there is no better critic than yourself!
Hollywood loves a good underdog story. Films like Rocky have allowed audiences to believe no matter who you are or where you are from – if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. Actually, maybe that was George McFly in Back to the Future or Marty because he went back and told it to George, only for George to tell it to a young Marty – time travel is confusing.
But the point is that America, for the most part, is built on the belief that through hard work, dedication and balls – the underdog can win. Rocky developed a whole series around this ideology and created a genre around inspirational, likeable working class heroes.
I, Tonya is not Rocky – not even a little. It’s the brutally, truly bats**t crazy, heartbreaking and kind of true (I’ll skate back around to this) story of Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding, who was everything American figure skating hated. Brash, foul-mouthed and uncompromising – she would, for a short time, become one of best figure skaters in the world and one of the most divisive sporting personalities in history.
The mockumentary is based on the real-life story of Harding, through true-ish accounts of the four main characters – Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, her mother LaVona and Harding’s former bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. From the beginning the idea of ‘truth’ is something that even the film creators acknowledge is a hazy issue, as the opening credits note that the film is ‘Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews’ with those involved.
This notion is something that the director, Australian Craig Gillespie, seems to relish as he’s created a film where the truth is irrelevant and the story is everything. At every juncture of the film, the scenes begin, end or are interrupted by the humorously quasi interviews of the characters, as each contradicts the others account of events. There’s a hefty dose of fourth wall breaking too, where characters address the audience regarding the fallacies of the current version of the story. In one scene for instance, Harding is shown chasing her husband out of the house with a shotgun and turns to the camera to say ‘this never happened’. It’s a constant, and necessary, reminder to take the story with a pinch of salt.
The story follows Harding’s struggles through an abusive childhood in a single parent home. Her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) is a sharp tongued, quick tempered, loveless, bitter excuse for a woman that through brute force, beats the will to be a champion into Harding, believing that she skates better when she was angry and degraded.
Abuse seems to be a constant trope in the life of Harding who, as a teen, meets future husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) at an ice rink and quickly takes over the mantel of abuser from Harding’s mother. They break up and make up constantly despite Jeff slamming her hand in a car door (which he denies in his account) and even convinces her to take him back by threating to shoot himself with a gun, which results in him shooting her and leads to a reconciliation. It sounds a strange thing to forgive but earlier in the film, Harding’s mother stabs her with a knife and she forgives her, even seeking comfort in her darkest hour from the woman who is basically an evil Disney stepmother.
Ultimately, one of the tragedies of this film, and her life, is that Harding is never able to fully escape the abuse – seemingly mistaking it for love as it’s all she has ever known.
Skating is Harding’s only escape. But even here, she has to fight against the prejudice and ostracisation of the United States Figure Skating Association, which feel Harding’s brash demeanour, scanty outfits and less than wholesome family, were a poor reflection of America’s values.
Harding harnesses all the negativity and continues to train to be the best – eventually becoming the first female American in the world to land a triple axel in competition, and only the second woman in the world to complete the feat.
But it’s not this for which history will remember her, rather an incident that occurred in 1993 when fellow competitor and rival/friend, depending on who’s account you go by, was viciously kneecapped after a practice session, paving the way for Harding to win a national title and make the Olympic team. The only issue – Harding may or may not have been involved in said kneecapping. The truth is out there – just don’t expect the answers from this film.
Despite the serious subject matters explored, Gillespie inserts some much need comedy throughout using flashy camera moves and editing, to characters involved in a recollection of an incident breaking character to argue that the incident never happened, or not in that way at least. The 80’s styling of the film is also a nostalgic treat as much a humorous convention.
And while the comedy is a welcome rest bite from the drama, it feels like the director is using his creative licence to cast his own aspersions over the validity of Harding’s account (and the other characters) of the way her life played out. In essence, Gillespie is guilty of the same prejudices that the ice skating world showed to Harding and the resulting film is as divisive as Harding herself.
Margot Robbie sparkles in the lead role as the ungainly, but insanely talented, Harding who is as blunt as an old skate and tough as the ice she became Queen of. Flawless, uncompromising and surreal – it’s Robbie’s best performance to date and showcases her acting ability. Unquestionably, it’s deserving of her Oscar nod and is a strong contender – even with the fierce competition this year.
Despite the career defining performance (to date) from Robbie, it’s Allison Janney that is truly superb – a performance so good you detest her even while applauding her. She steals every scene just like the real LaVona stole Harding’s youth.
I, Tonya unapologetically tells a story that’s hard to comprehend and even harder to prove. It’s equal parts tragedy and comedy – you’ll cry and you’ll laugh and hate yourself for both. Harding is an anti-hero you’ll either love or hate, and she couldn’t care less which one of the two it is.
I, Tonya – Now in cinemas