Hebe Hamilton reviews Craig Gillespie’s Oscar-nominated biopic about the controversial figure skater.
Prior to the release of I, Tonya I had never heard of Tonya Harding, nor of the infamous 1994 attack on her teammate Nancy Kerrigan. Maybe this is unsurprising considering my general lack of exposure to ice skating, apart from occasional Christmas fairs over the years, which consisted of clinging to the wall until the ordeal was over. The opposite can be said for a Canadian friend of mine, for whom figure skating was a regular pastime as a child. When I asked if she knew about Tonya Harding, her response was immediate: “Oh yeah, everyone know’s about her – she’s crazy”.
Clearly Harding’s story was an unforgettable one for those acquainted with skating and Winter Sports history, and one heavily scrutinised by the media, who enjoyed portraying her as a pantomime villain. But why tell the story of a so-called disgraced competitor instead of – perhaps – Kerrigan’s, herself an Olympic medallist?
Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers answer this almost as soon as the film opens: it is a reclamation of Harding’s life, reputation, and legacy. But it is naive to assume there will be a sugary-sweet ending to Harding’s story. The film is effectively a tragedy, not least thanks to Harding’s background, and her failure – beyond her control – at appealing to the American ideal of the perfect family girl on the world stage.
Taking the style of a mockumentary, the narrative is interspersed with interviews from Harding (Margot Robbie); her former husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); his best friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser); and her formidable mother LaVona (Allison Janney). We learn about Harding’s difficult childhood at the hands of an emotionally and physically abusive LaVona, determined to make her daughter “a champion” at the cost of resentment and hatred between the two. The cycle of abuse continues with her relationship and eventual marriage to Gillooly, who alternates between obsessive neediness and violent control of Harding. Finally, her initial success in the 1991 National Figure Skating Championships, and her unique achievement as the first female to nail the triple axel in a competition, is eventually overshadowed by the 1994 attack on rival Kerrigan, for which her husband and Eckhardt were responsible. Harding maintains her innocence but nonetheless is implicated in the attack, found guilty of perverting the course of justice and is banned from competitive figure skating for life. This devastating decision ends Harding’s short career prematurely and earns her lasting notoriety and the enmity of the American people.
There are fine performances from all involved in the cast, but Margot Robbie and Allison Janney stand out and well-deserve their Oscar nominations for their portrayal of the dysfunctional mother-and-daughter duo. Janney effortlessly presents a waspish antagonist in the form of LaVona, ranging from darkly sharp and witty one-liners to abominable acts of emotional torment and violence, including throwing a table knife at her on-screen daughter’s arm. The worst we see of Janney’s character comes when she seemingly attempts to console and comfort her daughter during the FBI investigations, only to be found hiding a recording device in her coat pocket. The look of betrayal on Robbie’s face is matches ours: the one time we expected to see redemption for their broken relationship, and it was lie all along. What were we, and Harding, to expect?
Margot Robbie triumphs in the title role. She manages to recreate the sarcastic feistiness akin to some of her well-loved earlier roles, such as Harley Quinn and Naomi LaPaglia, but this time we see a crucial level of fragility and vulnerability in her performance, reminding us of the bitter reality of Harding’s story and of a woman who was repeatedly shunned and ridiculed in both her personal and professional life. An unforgettable moment comes when Harding is seen alone in her dressing room, pre-1994 Olympic performance. She attempts to smile at herself in the mirror, but even that facade is failing: between every smile, Robbie convincingly lets slip a grimace of anxiety and despair, effectively revealing the protagonist at her breaking point.
The costumes and make-up are well researched and manage to make the cast look uncannily like their real-life counterparts, as revealed by the original interview clips shown in the ending credits. This is particularly true in the case of LaVona and Eckhardt, which is credit to casting directors Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu. An interesting point to make is that Rogers wrote the dialogue and characterisation of LaVona with Janney in mind, though this was their first film together. Both Harding and her mother are shown throughout the film to be hand-making her skating costumes, in various styles and colours, to emphasise the family’s inability to afford the proper and, importantly, suitable skating outfits.
Although unexpected, the mockumentary style of the narrative works extremely well, not only reminding the audience of the grave reality of the 1994 attack, but that Harding and her contemporaries remembered the events of her life and the attack very differently. Coupled with the actors’ attempts to break the fourth wall, we are given both an insight into their differing personal opinions and the varying biases in their accounts. This allows the audience to feel involved in the narrative, yet able to reach their own conclusions at the end of the film.
Considering the significance of the 1994 attack on Tonya Harding’s life and career, it is unfortunate that the film barely focuses on Harding’s relationship with Kerrigan (played by former dancer Caitlin Carver). In one short flashback scene we see the two smoking and laughing together in their hotel room before an unspecified competition, as Harding relates that the media portrayed Kerrigan as “a princess” compared to her (just because they could). Apart from that, we only see Kerrigan sparingly during the rest of the film, with no dialogue apart from her cries of pain during the assault scene.
Gillespie and his team have created a thought-provoking piece of cinematography, which manages to touch upon the real story of a disgraced protagonist with a suitable level of black comedy to counteract the rest of the film’s tragic elements. More importantly, the film represents Harding’s long-awaited chance to get her story across to the rest of the world, which is emphasised both by Harding’s appearance at the film’s premiere, and the fact Robbie met and interviewed Harding herself during pre-production. The film ends with information about Harding’s current life and the emphatic final line that she is a “good mother” to her only son: yet another example of her reclamation of her identity in the public eye.
I, Tonya is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below: