Updated: Dec 24, 2021
In 1994, American figure skater Tonya Harding became an international sensation, not for her skating prowess, but for being implicated in an attack on fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan, one day before the Ladies’ singles competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. I, Tonya (2017), the dramatic reimagining of the issues surrounding ‘the incident', as it is referred to, depicts Tonya’s volatile upbringing, developing her raw talent as she is pushed to the limit in the sport from a young age, amidst ongoing physical and verbal abuse from her profane, chain-smoking and controlling mother. This is not helped by the arrival of Tonya’s future husband, Jeff Gillooly, another perpetrator of sharp and shocking instances of physical abuse towards her. This premise may imply that I, Tonya is a joyless endurance test. However, though it literally does not pull its punches, there is a darkly comic streak that courses through the film, which is told largely through flashback sequences interspersed with dramatised interview segments. Crucially, the narrative is based on ‘irony free, wildly contradictory interviews’ with the key people involved, conducted by screenwriter Steven Rogers. This element, along with top class performances, is what elevates it above the usual underdog sports biopic. With unreliable narrators telling their version of events, where does the truth lie? It is up to us to decide.
Margot Robbie is astonishingly good as Tonya, re-creating a complex life as seemingly effortlessly as the complex skating routines, including the coveted triple-axel jump, which Harding successfully completed in competition – still the only American woman figure skater to do so. (This latter aspect understandably required a little CGI augmentation in the film, however). Tonya is unapologetic yet vulnerable in equal measure. She is a fighter, who wants to win and prove her doubters wrong – and her doubters are many. Harding is the black sheep of the prim and proper world of figure skating, confronting indifferent, snobby judges and railing against a system that she sees as rigged against her ‘redneck’ background. She is hard-edged, fiery, contrary and arrogant, never seeing herself as the one to blame. For anything. We follow a turbulent life, privately and professionally, in which she ultimately finds love and adoration in the reactions of the crowds, something that cruelly eludes her in her personal life. As she sits facing the camera, as if looking at herself in the mirror in preparation for a routine, no forced smile or application of makeup can camouflage her tears. It is a particularly striking moment, and a quietly spectacular piece of acting by Robbie.
The subtext is that Tonya attracts people who will take advantage of her, typified in her relationship with Jeff Gillooly (chillingly played by a perfectly cast Sebastian Stan). From their first awkward, teenage kiss – hands in pockets – to his murky involvement in ‘the incident’, their life together is punctuated by violence and chaos. As both characters break the fourth wall at various points of the film, to claim that “this never happened” or “I didn’t do this”, their disintegrating relationship and conflicting perspectives hint at a cruel inevitability – the thin ice will soon irreparably crack. Tonya’s star may shine in the world of skating, but deception lurks in the shadows. Paul Walter Hauser brings a deft tragicomic touch to the role of Shawn Eckardt – initially a peripheral character, unassuming and ineffective, living at home with his parents – who worms his way into Harding’s camp, ostensibly as Jeff’s friend, but claiming to be Tonya’s ‘bodyguard’. Woefully out of his depth, he proves to be more of a devious fantasist than he first appears.
The ice queen of the piece, however, is Tonya's mother, LaVona Golden, in a stunningly observed performance by Allison Janney that pretty much swept the board during the 2017 awards season. And rightly so. Janney manages to squeeze every ounce of complexity out of, on paper, what could be a fairly one-note character. LaVona finds endless vulgar and graceless ways to belittle her daughter, all in the name of making her a champion. She occasionally appears to be coming close to peeling back the icy layers – paying lip service to posing for Tonya and Jeff's wedding photos, or offering Tonya insincere words of support in the aftermath of ‘the incident’ – only to then revert back to acid-tongued put downs and physical brutality. After one particularly explosive outburst in which a knife ends up in Tonya's arm, LaVona drily observes: “show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs”.
The story I, Tonya tells is a classic example of people with minimal scruples exploiting someone else’s success, highlighting some toxic aspects of athletic ambition in the process. There is a sense of belated justice in revisiting this story of turbulent scandal through a dramatic lens. Whether Harding was involved in the attack on Kerrigan or not – and the film makes its stance clear – screenwriter Rogers and director Craig Gillespie have crafted a tale that throws a spotlight on the treatment Harding received in the fallout, and how the media reported ‘the incident’, perhaps aiming to redress an imbalance. Tonya almost defiantly acknowledges that America wants someone to love and someone to hate. Rightly or wrongly, she ended up being both.
| To be continued... |