I’ve put off trying to write this review until the last-minute because I genuinely don’t know how to feel about this film. I knew that I wanted to see it because I think Margot Robbie is a great actress and I’d probably totally adore Allison Janney in anything. But, being a British person who has never been very interested figure skating and was only 6 when Tonya Harding was stripped of her title, I also wasn’t exactly knowledgeable about the story. I mean, I knew the basics of Harding’s story but it’s not as if I’d ever had any reason to go an delve deeper into her backstory. So, as much as I wanted to see this film I wasn’t sure I’d be the right person to appreciate it fully. Still, Mark Kermode was raving about it about a month ago and we’ve been on the same wavelength for a while now. I felt like it was the least I could to do to give the whole thing a try.
The problem is, now I’ve seen it, I can’t tell if I genuinely think it’s worth the hype or not. What I can say, without any uncertainty, is that both Margot Robbie and Alison Janney are incredible. The Best Supporting Actress was the one category that I couldn’t call pre-Oscar night but it was a deserved win for Janney’s portrayal of Tonya Harding’s mother, LaVona. She steals the show every time she’s on-screen and I wish there had been more moments when these two performed together. Their joint scenes were so wonderful to watch.
So it’s not as if I didn’t like the film. I just can’t tell if I like it because of the main performances or if that’s just the icing on an already good cake. I’m so skewed by my love of these actors that it’s difficult to separate everything. The film is a darkly funny look at the contrasting perspectives of “the incident”: the moment Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebsatian Stan), arranged for her biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, to be attacked by thugs. It opens with the statement that it is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with the people involved in Tonya’s story. The film presents a lot of these stories through documentary style interviews to camera but there are several moments when characters break the fourth-wall and speak directly to the camera. It is these moments that give the film its sense of realism whilst also making us aware this is hardly going to be an earnest biopic.
The film tracks Tonya’s rise to skating fame from being the skating mad child of an abusive mother to the Olympic hopeful. She is a talented skater but finds it impossible to shake her “white trash” roots and the judges always penalise her for her homemade costumes and unconventional music. However, Tonya stands out by her willingness to try anything. What she lacks in fur coats she makes up for in tenacity. She becomes the first American female figure skater to complete a triple axel in a major competition but is still finding herself falling behind the rest. It is a horrible but realistic portrait of the social inequality that still plagues us.
Tonya is presented as a resilient but strong woman. She stands up to her mother and moves in with boyfriend Jeff. Only to find that he beats her too. When her mother disapproves of the relationship Tonya is quick to point out it was LaVona who got her used to being hit. Tonya never loses her spirit and her drive to succeed through everything. She is a tough young woman who sees the need to fight as an inevitability. It has, perhaps, made her more apathetic to the plight of Nancy Kerrigan than she should be. She spent her life being hit by people who supposedly loved her so why should Nancy get an easy pass? Harding is an interesting woman but its difficult to understand her actions. The film tries so hard to present her as a victim but it struggles to maintain that viewpoint. It makes it difficult to tell who we should be rooting for.
That’s the problem I have with this film: it has been created in an unconventional manner in order to showcase how bizarre this story really is. There are moments when the truth and the exaggeration don’t always sit well with each other. There are times when the darkly comic story of a poor woman failing in a rich girl’s sport doesn’t always fit with the story of a teenager suffering from physical abuse. It skirts the line between affection for Harding, wanting to change her image, and gentle mocking the uneducated fish-out-of-water. It is a film that doesn’t always get the tone or balance right so it can feel a little uncomfortable. It’s also important to note that the one person missing from this tale is one of the most important. It might just be a case of legality that Nancy Kerrigan is hardly seen but it feels weird that someone so important remains so silent. It makes everything seem so obviously one-sided.
Still, there are some really impressive moments and the skating scenes are sensational. They have the technical intricacies that you would normally associate with a huge action film instead of an ice skating film but these moments stand out. I, Tonya isn’t a bad film but it also isn’t a completely successful one. Or, at least, successful enough to warrant the great performances at its centre. I’m not entirely sure Margot Robbie should have played the teenage Tonya but she is powerful in the role. If it hadn’t been for Janney she would have been the ultimate star of the show. Still, the film is patchy, occasionally unbalanced, and, sometimes, a little too on-the-nose. Considering what a complex and kind of ridiculous story this is, I was expecting more from the film. There was a lot of potential here that seems to have been wasted.