A foul-mouthed protagonist in a rise and fall narrative which maintains a focus on dysfunctional and violent marriage; surprisingly, this isn’t a brief description of the latest Scorsese movie. Yet, Craig Gillespie’s (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl) I, Tonya feels like an attempt to feel as such. Just like Harding herself, however, there have clearly been some issues in deterring total success.
Figure Skating is hardly the sport to invade conversation often, but in 1994, everyone was talking about it, and everyone’s lips read “Tonya Harding”. The Olympic competitor was banned from the sport for life after being swept into a vicious plan that involved an attack on fellow Olympian Nancy Kerrigan. It was a shocking moment in sports history, and here it is told in comedic fashion, which sadly, results in some disrespectfully handled material.
The narrative chronicles Harding (Margot Robbie) from childhood, through to her boxing career in the wake of her banishment from the sport – a court ruling of which she considered a death sentence. It explores the degrading communications between her and her mother (excellently portrayed by Allison Janney), a rotten relationship which seemed to pave the way for a similarly tainted marriage. Harding’s is a life story shaped by mistreatment; never having a mother or father, just coaches, and a constant voice yelling not to fail. As her life would suggest, she is hardly the ideal poster-girl for the sport. She is considered by the judges as an image of white-trash, seeing no place for the poor princess to dominate the sport, despite her majesty on the ice.
By exploring such an engaging background, the pieces seemed set in crafting an involving and moral drama. Sadly, jokes are often thrown in about domestic violence that feel contemptuous – sarcastic and reflective voiceover seem positioned to raise a laugh or two, aiming to anchor visuals that feel a little too visceral to be chuckled at. Not that this is the films biggest misstep; that would surely be forgetting who the film’s protagonist is.
Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the man most responsible for hatching the assault on Kerrigan, takes up much of the narrative for a proportion of the film. The plan is important, and the film itself smarmily addresses this in direct-address fashion, saying that this is “what you all came here for”. This is true to an extent, but it also loses sight of whose story the audience is there for; Tonya’s, and she wrongly feels excluded from a chunk of the story – marginalised by her own tale. The scenes involving the plan coming together, or rather, falling apart, are funny and entertaining; as preposterously dim-witted characters begin to appear, the film feels more and more indebted to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. This would be satisfactory, but the film aspires to be so much more. It wants you to truly care for Harding, to understand her pain, and this becomes more difficult in the films middle act – claims to this being her story, as the film’s personalised title would suggest, begin to slip.
The film can be a lot of fun, but there is plain potential for more, of which the character of Tonya’s mother herself recognises, commenting that her involvement in the story seems to be disappearing completely; and she’s right. She gives the film’s most exciting performance, and while the Fargo-esque narrative thread works, there are other things established in the films first act that seem to wither away to facilitate its priority.
I, Tonya ultimately feels like a juggling act, and finishes with a few balls rolling away from Gillespie’s feet. Robbie gives a stunning performance, as does the entire cast, but it would have helped to restrict the story and focus more on Tonya Harding herself, or rather, show how events transpired from her point of view, instead of insisting on alternating perspectives. It is certain, however, to say that this will be a hit with audiences, and with Harding herself: the truth(s) is out there.