I, TONYA

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Craig Gillespie

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Caitlin Carver, Bojana Novakovic, McKenna Grace, Anthony Reynolds, Ricky Russert.

The world of figure skating hasn’t been this much fun since Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson took to the ice in the comedy Blades Of Glory. Based on the controversial real-life story of disgraced US champion figure skater Tonya Harding and the vicious attack that left her main rival Nancy Kerrigan crippled this bizarre tale once again proves that fact is often stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

Tonya Harding (played here by Australian actress Margot Robbie, from Focus, etc) had always been interested in ice skating, and she took to the ice at the age of three. Her domineering and continually disparaging mother Lavona (a superb Allison Janney) was determined to make Tonya an ice skating star and convinced a reluctant Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) to become her coach. But even Rawlinson was unable to temper her rough edges and brash and abrasive style. And even though Harding was the first female to successfully perfect a triple axel, a difficult manoeuvre, the authorities of the sport often judged her on her trailer trash background rather than her talent, which led to a sense of frustration.

Harding’s main rival for Olympic consideration came from Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), who presented a much more acceptable image. In 1994, in the lead up to the Winter Olympics, a scheme to try and merely threaten Kerrigan spiralled wildly out of control. A mysterious person brutally attacked Kerrigan, breaking her knee with a tyre iron, thus ruling her out of contention. How much did Harding know about the attack? Despite her protestations of innocence, the incident ultimately destroyed her career and reputation and ruined her life.

Written by Steven Rogers (Stepmom, etc), I, Tonya is an unconventional biopic and unfolds as a sort of equal parts Greek tragedy and grubby tabloid story. The film is “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with both Harding and her criminally stupid husband Jeff Gillooly (played by Sebastian Stan, best known for his work in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Both offer different views on what happened, who did what, and who knew what about “the incident”, as it is euphemistically called. The characters often break the fourth wall and directly address the audience as they present their version of the facts. But it is clear that they are unreliable narrators, and at the end it still leaves you unsure as the where the truth lies. (During the end credits we get to see the real characters and hear pieces of their actual testimony, which shows how close to capturing the real characters the actors came.)

Robbie is superb here as Harding and delivers a warts-and-all performance that ranks as her best work yet. She depicts her as a talented but deeply troubled character in a fearless and deeply unsympathetic performance that never seeks our sympathy. She undergoes a remarkable transformation to capture her white trash persona. She captures her innate toughness and confidence, but also finds her vulnerability. She also manages to be convincing in the ice skating scenes, albeit with the aid of CGI and a skating double for some of the more difficult sequences.

Janney is outstanding and delivers a razor-sharp performance as Harding’s monstrous, foul-mouthed, chain smoking and verbally abusive mother who demands a lot from her daughter but never has anything nice to say. She totally inhabits the character as she spits out her cruel put downs and one liners with venom. Stan is also good as the violently unpredictable and manipulative Jeff, and he makes the most of his meatiest role to date. Paul Walter Hauser is also great and a revelation as Jeff’s dim-witted, pitiful, clueless and delusional best friend Shawn Eckhardt, who at various times says he is Harding’s bodyguard and admits to being a counterterrorism expert with vast experience overseas. But he is also the one who instigates the chain of events when he hires a couple of dim-witted out of town henchmen to take care of Kerrigan.

Australian director Craig Gillespie (the offbeat romantic comedy Lars And The Real Girl, etc) handles the material with the same sort of freewheeling style and energy that shaped Scorsese’s films like Goodfellas and The Wolf Of Wall Street. But it also has the wildly unpredictable flavour of Burn After Reading, one of the better films from the Coen brothers. Gillespie adopts a faux documentary style and a non-linear structure here. The film has been deftly edited together in slick fashion by Gillespie’s regular editor Tatiana Riegel. The film spans some thirty years, and cinematographer Nicholas Karakatsanis (Triple 9, etc) has shot the film using a variety of colour palettes that reflect the different eras.

This is a black comedy, but some of the slapstick buffoonery is laugh out loud funny at times. But it also has a much darker edge as it explores the volatile domestic situation and toxic relationship between Harding and the abusive Gillooly, which was characterised by physical and emotional abuse, and Gillespie maintains a delicate balance between the two contrasting tones.

While most movie biopics take a more reverential and straight forward approach to their subject I, Tonya is a wild, irreverent and unsettling ride. It also features one of the best soundtracks for a movie for some time, drawing upon a wealth of 70s and 80s hits and power ballads that are evocative of the period.

★★★★

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