I, TONYA gets 6.5/10 Ice capades

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan

6.5/10

In the early 90s, as a nascent 24 hour news cycle was coming into its own, one tale captured the imagination of the world and drew their attention to the sport of figure skating. A violent attack on an Olympic hopeful was seen as the work of one of her rivals, in an attempt to secure her position. Soon, Tonya Harding would be more than just a maverick on the ice, her name would become nefariously linked to the attack. I, Tonya tells that tale from her perspective….well, kind of.

In many ways I, Tonya is a fairly standard bio-pic, but it does have a bit of a twist. It takes an almost documentary like approach to storytelling, combining narratives and interviews from several admittedly biased characters (Harding, as well as her mother and ex-husband) to create a darkly comic telling of events. As such I, Tonya builds an unreliable narrative, that humorously contradicts itself, and often breaks the fourth wall to let audiences know when it is happening. It covers Harding’s (Margot Robbie) life, from her early extensive training pushed on her by her abusive mother (Allison Janney), to her escape into an equally abusive marriage (to Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan), to the ups and downs of her skating career, and the eventual “incident”.

Somehow this is never as great as the sum of its parts. The fantastic acting (rightfully Robbie and Janney have both received Academy Award nominations for their performances), inventive storytelling, frenetic pacing, and imaginative cinematic flourishes don’t quite add up to an effortless routine. Like the athlete it is based upon, you can feel the grind and effort, rather than being swept away in the sheer beauty of the work. Those imperfections are telling.

Occasionally I, Tonya handles its tonal shifts poorly, lurching from comedy to drama at strange and inappropriate times, especially in its look at the domestic abuse Harding suffered, both as a child and in her marriage to Gillooly. That black humour that the film runs on, that fine balance between comedy and tragedy that is Harding’s life, more often or not works for I, Tonya, but the moments it doesn’t are jarring. The cartoonish nature of some of the characters also hinders this balance making them seem like unbelievable stereotypes. In fairness, though, this may actually be an accurate representation, as some of the real life footage shown during the credits demonstrate.

What we are left with is still a fine film, lifted by two great performances. Robbie embodies the grit and determination of Harding, giving a pathos to a figure that was, at one stage, one of the most despised people in the world. The script and Robbie work hand in hand to make audiences sympathetic to Harding, never leaving you in doubt that I, Tonya is in her corner (despite the claims of unreliable narration the film consistently pays lip service to). Allison Janney (The West Wing) by contrast is pure spite, but makes what should be a despicable villain, into something more. We are never given much back story on Harding’s mother, never given a glimpse of why she is so bitter and acidic, beyond the grind of her socio-economic background, but Janney brings her vividly to life. So while we see a character full of envious bile, we can never truly hate her due to the strength of the actor inhabiting her.

I, Tonya is a film that has a few faults in its routine, never being truly comfortably with itself, but is saved by the talent of those involved.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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