Sometimes you give it all you’ve got….but you still don’t quite get the gold. But Tonya Harding’s life exemplified this on a whole other level and this is what Margot Robbie explores in an exceptional performance as the infamous figure skater in I, Tonya.
Beginning in the early 1980s, I, Tonya, chronicles the rise of American figure skater Tonya Harding, who’s pretty exterior masked a determined and crazed competitive drive. With a narcissistic obsession to win, all of this would lead Harding and her husband Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan) to orchestrate an attack on Harding’s teammate and competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) at the National Figure Skating Championship in 1994 in an event that shocked the sporting world.
As one of my five most anticipated films of 2017 I was very excited for what lay ahead in I, Tonya and director Craig Gillespie did not disappoint with this crazy true-life adaptation. While we’re all aware of films that employ an unreliable narrator in the narrative, here Gillespie uses two of them to the utmost example. In his film, he pits the word of Harding and her former husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in a vicious battle against one another as they both reveal their memories of the sordid events that unfolded. It’s a great way to frame the film and you never know where the story is about to go next because of it.
Margot Robbie is simply amazing as Tonya Harding. She fully embraces 80s glam as the embittered figure skater and really nails Harding’s white trash background and her will to do whatever she has to do to win. Her portrayal of Harding is utterly complex and all throughout the film, you constantly empathise with her situation and just what she is trying to do to get out of it. Not only does she suffer at the hands of an abusive mother, but her relationship with Jeff is also incredibly abusive. She also suffers from not fitting into the ‘princess’ archetype that figure skating demands…even though she is a better skater than all of her competitors combined. She’s the quintessential Rocky character, an underdog who we all want to win. But she’s essentially the underdog who never quite made it, and you can’t help but feel sorry for her, especially with everything that she’s gone through. And all of it is a testament to her performance.
Standing next to Robbie is Sebastian Stan as her husband Jeff Gillooly. While he at first appears as the boy of her dreams he soon unleashes upon Tonya in a series of vicious beatings and his nice-guy persona quickly wears out. All of this is fed by his own self-loathing and inadequacy of a man compared to his talented wife. While I can say that you certainly don’t empathise with this woman beater, I must say that Stan’s performance, like Robbie’s, is inspired. This is an actor who is regarded as one of the most charming and sweetest guys in Hollywood and seeing him as a such a vile character really gives credence to his position as a performer.
But if there’s a scene-stealer in the film then it undoubtedly goes to Allison Janney as Tonya’s foul-mouthed and depressing mother LaVona. This is a woman who is literal human bile and her relationship with her daughter borders on the psychotic. While she constantly goes on about how much she has ‘supported her daughter’, she is also quick to berate, stupify and threaten Tonya with both verbal and physical violence. The dysfunction here is on a whole other level and is a credit to Janney’s performance…even though it’s very hard to watch.
As a life-long cinematography fan, I’ve also got to shout out the work of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. Karakatsanis does a great job at capturing I, Tonya’s 80s tinged setting and his work on the ice is phenomenal. Robbie performs the majority of her own stunts and combined with Karakatsanis camera work, the footage is just stunning. You really feel like you’re on the ice with Tonya as she strives for the podium and it’s a thrill to watch.
I, Tonya is an incredibly interesting watch as a sports film as well because it goes against the grain. While the majority of major sports films focus in on the underdog who achieves great success I, Tonya is the exact opposite. This is the anti-Rocky film, the film that shows how heartbreaking and damaging this competitive lifestyle can be for athletes who give their all for their sport. It’s a very sad reality and makes the film all the more real, especially Tonya’s grief and alleged involvement in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, who is painted in a very unflattering eye.
I had great hopes for I, Tonya and I can confirm that they were indeed met with this amazing film. Margot Robbie’s performance was exceptional and this is a sports film that definitely makes you think. As we move through Awards season I can confirm that I, Tonya is an absolute must watch this season.
Image: Roadshow Films