‘I, Tonya’

Notorious 90s figure skater gets a darkly comic docudrama makeover

Cue the Whitesnake song!
Cue the Whitesnake song!

There’s a couple of things about I, Tonya that make it the surprisingly impressive film it is, and they are the two performances at its centre, from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. Now, as far as Ms Janney is concerned, anyone who ever – even once – tuned into an episode of The West Wing will know what kind of acting goddess that woman is. She’s commanding, strong, she has remarkable screen presence, gravitas, and immaculate comic timing. That she’d be willing to de-glam, remove any trace of vanity for what is perhaps her finest work, is truly something. But it doesn’t come as a surprise – she’s great, she’s always been great; she’s great in everything she’s done.

But Margot Robbie is a revelation here. It’s not often that ‘the blonde girl’ from ‘the soap opera’ can go on to be an actual talented and successful actor, as both Neighbours and Home & Away have a habit of churning through the company of players with startling regularity – and for every Rose Byrne, Isla Fisher or Guy Pearce there’s hundreds of wannabes who seldom do better than the UK pantomime circuit once their tenure in Oz Soap Land comes to an end. Having played on Neighbours in her late teens, Robbie went to the US in search of fame, landed a pilot (Pan Am) that got a series order and was then cancelled after a month. From that, The Wolf of Wall Street where she held her own in esteemed company, and from there Suicide Squad, where she managed to somehow be simply, ludicrously magnetic and watchable in a film that has to have set a kind of record for least-impressive-film-relative-to-commercial-success ratio. It’s a weird combination: being unassailably great in an objectively bad film.

So, in truth it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that she winds up being as good as she is as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. In it, she covers a wide gamut of human experiences; she’s innocent, she’s complicit, she’s calculating, she’s oblivious. Harding becomes in this film a figure of sympathy as well as scorn – the white trash princess with some measure of talent who got undone by the boorish company she kept.

Craig Gillespie’s film alternates between mockumentary and biopic; switching between first person testimonials, re-enactments, dramatizations and archival news footage from the events surrounding the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, when Harding’s closest rival in figure skating met the blunt end of a crowbar in the lead-up to the games. The film shows that there’s always multiple sides to any story, but that underneath it all was Harding’s desire and willingness to succeed at the one thing she was good at, overcoming the hurdles that go hand in hand with being dirt poor, raised by a sociopathic mother, and married to a scumbag. It’s a film that says a lot about America – that at the end of the day, no matter who you are, you sometimes never really have a chance, such are the odds of success.

This wildly enjoyable, if occasionally mean-spirited film is a unique product of the time, and should be sought out and remembered for the thrill of seeing two actors at different stages of their careers being as good as it gets.

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