There is something extraordinary that I, Tonya does in under two hours that could not be done in two decades. It builds sympathy for Tonya Harding, who as we learn in the film that opens nationally today, was the number one skater in the world for a period of time.
See, given her upbringing, mother, husband and treatment by the figure skating community, it is hardly a surprise what occurred to the tabloid magnet. If a sordid tale hadn’t emerged from her world, now that would have been the shocking thing.
I, Tonya shines the spotlight on the Oregon native’s passion for skating and how success in that field was almost impossible for her. Figure skating is considered a sport for the wealthier side of society. There is little room for those in the economic strata where Harding resides. Yet, with an astounding amount of talent and work ethic, Harding did succeed… despite the hoops she had to jump through to even “play” on that skewed playing field of figure skating’s higher echelon.
There is the abusive mother, and husband, not to mention the skating culture that didn’t know what to do with her hard rock playing routines, hand made outfits that never screamed well-to-do. But, when you are the only skater in the world who can attempt and succeed at the triple axel, triumph is bound to follow. Sadly, bad luck, bad people who she associated with and good old fashioned cultural prejudice held her back. A scandal to destroy one of her rivals seemed to be the last nail in the coffin of the tale of Tonya.
Margot Robbie is Harding and delivers an Oscar nomination worthy performance showcasing the level of talent the Australian actress has seems to be ever-growing. She is joined in the profound performance department by soon-to-be-Oscar winner Allison Janney as her mother LaVona Golden and Sebastian Stan as her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (the man convicted of orchestrating the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan.
Directing them from a stellar script by Steven Rogers is Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours). The helmer masterfully breaks down the fourth wall on numerous occasions and allows the audience to get a front row seat to the truth in a story that was stacked with so many lies as it was being written in real life. Gillespie gives his actors the freedom to deliver the goods with a breath of fresh air that permeates the entire film. When dealing with a true tale, a director may be tempted to exert control over every aspect of the tale telling. But what Gillespie does is create a creative environment that confirms that age-old adage that if the performers are enjoying themselves, so too will the audience. That is never truer than with I, Tonya.
Having the most joy is Robbie. At first when hearing the casting, this writer wondered if it would work. The Wolf of Wall Street star, who also dazzled us as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, didn’t seem like the perfect fit to embody someone that everyone who was alive during those scandal-plagued days of the mid-90s feels they know. Yet, she commands every scene, every moment and announces to the world that there is nothing that Robbie cannot do on the silver screen. It is largely due to her take on Harding that that aforementioned sympathy is allowed to blossom. The skater was dealt a rotten hand and did her best to make the most of the cards in her possession. Sadly for Harding, she found herself, repeatedly, in positions where others around her would make decisions that would hinder her as much as that club hindered Kerrigan in the days before the Winter Olympics in 1994.
Janney gives a force of nature performance, one that will easily notch her her first Academy Award in a few weeks. The audience will want to hate her, and that is exactly what the veteran thespian went for and succeeded in delivering. Given what we see Harding had as a mother, it is a bloody miracle that she managed to do some extraordinary things on the world stage. It’s almost like she succeeded in spite of her mother who routinely proclaimed she had her best interests at heart. At one point in the film, Harding asks her mother if she ever loved her. Her response embodies exactly what Golden believed was her mission as maternal influence to Tonya. “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it. That’s the sacrifices a mother makes.” Not exactly roses and cuddly mom love, is it?
There could have been many roads that filmmakers could have journeyed down to tell the Harding tale. Yet, this fourth-wall breaking, comedic, melodic and it’s hard to believe this really happen method of storytelling works beautifully. It’s no wonder that Harding has accompanied the cast and filmmakers around on this award circuit. She has every reason to be proud of the story that tells her story. It is a complicated web that her life wove and in the hands of all those involved with I, Tonya, it gives us an insight into a complicated soul that on the outside, appears to be anything but complex.
I, Tonya feels like the most triumphant of skating routines. It takes you on a wild ride around the rink that is filled with breathtaking athleticism, melodic and moving moments and ends with one beaming ear-to-ear as roses fall from the rafters. I, Tonya… I, adore you.