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23 February 2018updated 14 Sep 2021 2:32pm

Margot Robbie saves the ice-skating biopic I, Tonya from sheer sensationalism

Craig Gillespie directs with all the subtlety of a baton-wielding thug but has made one brilliant decision in Margot Robbie, who is a machine for generating empathy.

By Ryan Gilbey

Knowledge of the figure skater Tonya Harding remains at a rudimentary level in Britain, where she has never quite become the monster, pariah and punchline that she is in the US. Perhaps the story was too far from our cosy Torvill-and-Dean view of skating, or the nuances of the American class system were too dissimilar to our own. Fear not: every last twist, turn and triple axel of the tale is spelled out in the black comedy I, Tonya, which shows how she was implicated in a plot to prevent a fellow skater from competing in the 1994 Winter Olympics. The injured party was Nancy Kerrigan, whose leg was badly bruised by a blow from a telescopic baton. (The assailant was a thug hired by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard.) After the attack, Harding underwent victimisation on a national scale. 

Craig Gillespie directs with all the subtlety of a baton-wielding thug but has made at least one brilliant decision in casting Margot Robbie, who is practically a machine for generating empathy. She projects a convincing sense of wounded injustice as a woman whose skill as a skater was overlooked repeatedly while judges took issue with her “presentation” – in other words, her trashiness. I, Tonya is caught between railing against that sort of snobbery and drawing most of its own dramatic energy from giggling at her torrid, squalid life.

A “mockumentary” framing device, where the characters give interviews straight-to-camera many years later, only multiplies the opportunities for sneering. Now we can hear their excuses while seeing evidence which contradicts them. “Off the ice she was a happy, well-adjusted child,” says Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Cut to the kid trying to shoot a rabbit between the eyes. Like any number of movie tyrants (the music teacher in Whiplash, the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket), LaVona’s toxic energy is prized and despised by the film. It can’t get enough of her chunky specs, ratty furs, the severely pruned haircut that’s too small for her head and the Long John Silver parrot on her shoulder. She’s a graduate from the Mommie Dearest school of parenting: she thrashes her daughter with a hairbrush and kicks her off a chair. The abuse continues into adulthood and on to the ice. Hear that man in the crowd calling out “You suck!”? He’s a plant paid for by LaVona, who claims her daughter skates better when enraged. Don’t say she never does anything for her.

The interviews allow the film to score points off these woebegone souls. “Show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs,” snorts LaVona immediately after we’ve seen her throw a knife into her daughter’s arm. More effective are the instances of Harding commenting on the abusive behaviour of her low-wattage husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), even as she’s in the midst of receiving his punches. “Mom hit me,” she explains, “and she loves me.” Retaliating during an argument by blasting at him with a shotgun, she tells the camera: “This is bullshit. I never did this.” She’s not the first character to cast aspersions on the veracity of a film as it unfolds – 24 Hour Party People and American Splendor included similar moments – but the trick works here as a distancing device in scenes that might otherwise risk being exploitative.

It’s not a charge the rest of the film can dodge easily. The argument that Harding suffered disproportionately for her crimes, and that a frightened, abused woman essentially was abused all over again in the media, is hard to square with the picture’s sensationalist tone; Robbie’s performance provides the sole rebuttal. There are nifty musical choices – Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” plays during Tonya and Jeff’s first kiss and doesn’t stop once the violence starts. But when LaVona stomps across the rink to the sound of Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”, it’s both obvious and unoriginal: Gus Van Sant got there first in To Die For, when “Season of the Witch” by Donovan played over another ice-skating scene involving a monstrous woman. If there’s no room in I, Tonya for The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”, that must only be because the soundtrack budget had already been blown on Cliff. 

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I, Tonya is in cinemas now. 

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia