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Highly watchable and compelling

Margot Robbie in I Tonya.

Margot Robbie in I Tonya.

I, Tonya
Director: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
Duration: 120 mins
Class: 15
KRS Releasing Ltd

The January 1994 knee-bashing attack on champion figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by a man purportedly hired by her main rival, Tonya Harding, made headlines across the world. The putative rivalry between the pretty, elegant, and soft-spoken Kerrigan and the trashy, loud, arrogant Harding turned up quite a few notches by the off-rink incident.

The wronged Kerrigan became a media darling, Harding a complete pariah. She was banned from the sport for life after she pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers, despite claiming she had no idea that the attack was being planned. She remained ostracised for years, becoming to many a figure of fun.

The tragi-comic I, Tonya focuses on events from Harding’s point of view, taking a long, hard, oftentimes brutal – at others brutally funny – look at her life leading up to the scandal that threatened to mar her forever.

The film opens with a caption that states that it is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan),” all too accurately setting the scene for what is to come. The two break the fourth wall to tell us their versions of their volatile relationship in a highly watchable and compelling manner.

The filmmakers deserve credit for not attempting to make a hero out of Harding. Nor do they try to excuse her behaviour or take a stand on her innocence or guilt. What it does is describe the awfulness of her childhood environment, giving some hitherto unexplored background into her life.

As a little, carefree girl, Tonya enjoyed a loving relationship with her father. Yet he walked out, leaving her in the care of her overbearing and obnoxious mother LaVona, the worst possible em­bodiment of the ‘stage mom’, who pushed her into ice-skating – despite the reservations of skating coach Diane Rawlinson.

Tonya had a raw talent, however, one that Rawlinson nurtured. And despite the attitude and rough edges, Harding became a skating star. As Tonya’s star rose, LaVona perversely grew insanely jealous of her daughter’s burgeoning career and threw nothing but taunts and criticism (and the occasional knife) her way.

A darkly comic story of redemption and second chances

Tonya escaped her mother by marrying the abusive Gillooly at age 19, leading to little improvement in her personal life. Yet, despite the complications and difficulties, her iron will sent her to myriad skating competitions and two Olympic Games, with more success on the horizon had the dreadful attack on Kerrigan not brought her career to a grinding and ignominious halt.

It is a certainly an intriguing story and the script by Steven Rogers, at times uproarious and  at others heart-rending, is brought to life by director Craig Gillespie.

Gillespie offers a series of punchy scenes cutting back and forth, presenting the facts as accurately as he can – or not – leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

That Harding cared not a hoot what people thought and march­ed to the beat of her own drum, with her brashness in style and costume a shock to the polished sophistication of the figure skating world, adds to the humour of the movie. This lightness of touch, however, turns very dark as we witness the horrific violence she suffered at Gillooly’s hand, and kudos to Stan for acing the contrast between the character’s smooth, charming side and his ugly violent streak.

The director is served with excellent performances by Margot Robbie as Tonya, and Allison Janney as LaVona. Robbie proffers a performance that by all accounts is the product of intensive research. She is fearless in presenting the character to us, warts and all, as she narrates the story. She is opinionated, reckless, rude and unapologetic; yet her talent is undeniable; her vulnerability painful; and her sense of survival unparalleled.

Robbie hits every note, playing the character from age 14 to the days she faced her court judgment, throwing in some very nifty moves on the ice herself.

Janney deservedly won a plethora of awards, culminating in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her take on LaVona. It is a no-holds barred performance, and Janney tackles it with gusto, easily facing the challenge of personifying a woman with not a single redeeming feature. Yet, despite her complete lack of humanity, Janney still convinces us that the woman believed she acted in the best interest of her daughter.

By the time the credits rolled I was completely moved by the news that the turbulence in Tonya’s life seems to have moved on – she has been happily married for eight years and has a young son. It is, indeed, a darkly comic story of redemption and second chances, made even more touching by its basis on (sort of) fact.

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