Margot Robbie nails it in I, Tonya with its offbeat dark humour

By Steven Sheehan

Anyone born after 1990 May need a quick refresher on disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding. A one-time Olympic skater, she gained notoriety back in 1994 when her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was accused and subsequently found guilty of orchestrating an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s closest competitive rivals. A media frenzy ensued once her ex-husband was jailed, with Tonya banned for life from competitive skating, and her place in history firmly secured for all the wrong reasons. Director Craig Gillespie’s Oscar-nominated I, Tonya attempts an unorthodox retelling of Harding’s life up to and including that shocking episode.

Margot Robbie is given the task of tackling this brash and foul-mouthed version of Tonya portrayed as a victim of her working-class roots and troubled relationships with her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) and husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan). Harding is beaten by LaVona as a child and bullied throughout the duration of her career, while Jeff continues the physical and mental abuse before, during and after their marriage.

Gillespie’s film begins with a title card stating his story is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” This is the first of many winks and nudges thrown at the camera as the story wiggles its way towards finding its own version of the truth.

“Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”

Tonya and Jeff take turns in telling their own version of events, with both characters sat mockumentary-style talking directly to the camera contradicting each other’s stories. Despite the ongoing abuse suffered by Tonya and the domineering presence of the chain-smoking, potty-mouthed LaVona, almost everything is played for laughs, much to the detriment of the finger the film points back at the audience. Apparently, the media and those who took joy in her downfall are just as bad as those close-by who mistreated her. Gillespie appears completely unaware of the irony behind the accusation in a story that dismisses her abuse as nothing more than a series of punchlines.

Gillespie’s approach has the look and feel of a Scorsese affair, told in the style of Goodfellas complete with his trademark pans, zooms, breaking of the fourth wall and obligatory pop/rock soundtrack. It’s breezy and light-hearted enough to keep the two hours zipping along and at times threatens to break out into a half-decent sports film.

The performances are the reason I, Tonya is being included in the Oscar discussion and while Robbie and Janney give committed performances, Steven Rogers’ script never makes them anything more than flimsy caricatures whose only discernible features are an ability to curse like a demon.

Truth and cinema have rarely been good bedfellows and it would be foolish to expect otherwise when watching a Hollywood biopic. In that respect, I, Tonya is just empty entertainment, vaguely attempting to make a point it doesn’t believe in itself. There’s nothing wrong with picking the lowest hanging fruit, but at the very least be honest about it.

Back in reality, the real Tonya (remarried under the name Price) seems to be riding the crest of a wave amidst the film’s publicity, and you can’t help but wonder what Nancy Kerrigan makes of it all.