Figure-skating, despite requiring immense amounts of strength, precision and wonderfully sparkly outfits, has never ranked particularly high on my radar. This is perhaps why it took me far longer than it should have to sit down and watch I, Tonya. Based on a true story, we follow the life of self-proclaimed redneck skater, Tonya Harding, as she fights for glory and acceptance against a backdrop of rigid, 1980s American ideals and abusive relationships.
The film opens with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) sat in a tired-looking kitchen twenty years on from ‘the incident.’ Unapologetic and seemingly hardened, she smokes a cigarette while daring the interviewer to question her achievements. The interview then shifts to her softly-spoken ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who leaves us baffled as to why he was once the ‘most hated man in America.’
Next to appear is Tonya’s five-times-married mother, expertly played by Allison Janney who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Lavona Harding. She brilliantly portrays a resentful waitress and controlling ‘monster’ of a mother, aggressively exploiting her four-year-old daughter’s skating prowess while topping up her coffee with liquor on the side of the ice-rink. The constant verbal and physical abuse Tonya receives from Lavona throughout her childhood and adolescence (her father being absent), coupled with the domestic violence she experiences during her relationship with Jeff, explains the reappearance throughout the film of her need to be loved – whether that be from her mother, the judges, or the roaring crowds.
Unconventional in build, manner and music choice, Tonya is more ‘rock star on ice’ than ‘prima-figure skater.’ Stubbing out her pre-performance cigarette with her ice-skate, she goes on to speed across the rink with fearless power and becomes the first American woman to perform a triple axel; a move of such high-risk that, according to producer Margot Robbie, it was almost impossible to find a stunt double to perform the act so close to the Olympics. However, in spite of Tonya’s obvious talent and rigorous commitment to her training, it becomes clear that she’s not the ‘wholesome’ American figure-skater the judging panels are looking for. We watch as Tonya battles between her refusal to conform to the mould and her desperate pursuit of validation.
The breakdown in the marriage between Tonya and Jeff is a long and arduous ordeal, culminating in an ‘incident’ so ridiculous you can imagine it in a Leslie Nielsen film. Yet the consequences are very real and far from funny. Jeff’s deluded sidekick Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) has seen one-too-many spy thrillers resulting in a strong conviction that his ‘experience in counter-espionage’ makes him qualified to plot and carry out organised crime. His comedy timing combined with his clueless hit squad, AKA Shane and Derrick, almost detract from the infamous event that will plague Tonya Harding for years to come.
Though humorous, the film explores a variety of dark and serious themes, from domestic abuse to class divide. Yet as well as this, we experience absolute perseverance from a fierce individual who refuses to quit – whether she’s a conventional or unconventional role-model is irrelevant.
I give this film a very enthusiastic 4 out of 5 flicks.