There are a lot of frustrations to endure in watching I, Tonya, but the hardest to bear is without doubt the fact that Australian director Craig Gillespie, in cahoots with writer Steven Rogers, has painted disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding as much a victim, if not more so, than the rival whose beating she helped orchestrate. It is a very strange move by Gillespie and it is one that builds to an almost unbearable level of disbelief as the director rams home the notion that Harding has somehow been dealt a bad hand in the wake of the events that saw Nancy Kerrigan attacked during the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. It is a version of events that is in complete contrast to the realities of what took place and Harding’s role in it. Make no mistake, Margot Robbie is fantastic in the lead role and Allison Janney is also terrific as Tonya’s deranged mother, but their performances alone cannot mask the lack of objectivity that flies in the face of everything we already know about what transpired.
Gillespie weaves his fanciful fable through multiple aesthetic filters; mockumentary one moment, narrative drama the next, interwoven with historical footage that includes TV news coverage of the case and deposition testimony from some of those involved. Whereas the mockumentary style can be brilliantly effective in telling a story that, whilst drawing influences from real life characters and events (such as This is Spinal Tap), is a completely fictional construct, it is simply not as convincing in this instance, largely because it is an examination of real events about people with whom we are already quite familiar. Perhaps the intention was that the disjointed manner in which the film is put together would serve as a metaphor for Harding’s tumultuous, chaotic life that came within a whisker of running off the rails on several occasions before the fateful day that put her in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Yes, Harding endured a miserable childhood at the hand of her abusive mother LaVona and subsequently entered into a marriage with the unstable Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) that was mired in domestic violence and emotional upheavals that did make her significant achievements – the first American woman to successfully execute a Triple Axel and one of only nine women in history to complete the jump in competition – all the more meritorious. However, to suggest, as Gillespie does incessantly, that her upbringing and the hardships she endured somehow mitigate her culpability, is ridiculous. The film wants us to believe that Harding is merely a victim of the stupidity of others, namely Gillooly and his delusional, dim-witted friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), rather than an active participant in any scheme to knobble Kerrigan. Given that she had done nothing wrong other than being adjudged a better skater than Harding, the way Kerrigan is portrayed in I, Tonya is mean–spirited, ill-conceived and all in the name of trying to convince us that Harding is the real victim, which, of course, is nonsense.
Through it all, Robbie delivers a show-stopping performance that has justifiably seen her feature prominently in awards speculations. Janney, likewise, is every bit as good as we come to expect from her, making LaVona utterly repulsive, yet you can’t wait to see what she is going to do or say next; her incredulousness at the suggestion that she wasn’t a good mother is deeply delusional yet darkly comic. In fact, the one trait that Tonya has seemingly inherited from her mother is the inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. Another Australian actress in Bojana Novakovic (who was so good in 2011’s Burning Man and has been seen most recently on television in Shameless and Instinct) also features as one of Harding’s coaches, while Bobby Cannavale is lumped with a character whose presence is pointless and brings nothing interesting or insightful to the table. The other real star is film editor Tatiana Riegel whose rapid-fire cutting brings a sense of urgency to proceedings. Having worked with Gillespie before on the far superior Lars and the Real Girl, Riegel rises to the challenge of bringing a multitude of stylistic and aesthetic elements together and makes watching I, Tonya more tolerable than it might otherwise be. Despite the heroics of Robbie, Janney and Riegel, Gillespie has failed to deliver a film that presents as anything more than a tribute to Tonya Harding that is as bewildering as it is blatant. Who knows, maybe Gillespie’s next trick will be to try and sell us on the idea that OJ Simpson is a really good bloke who also deserves our sincerest sympathy.