It took a while for it to dawn on me that many people, including I, Tonya’s star and producer Margot Robbie, would be unaware of the real life events that inspired this darkly comedic portrayal of one of the greatest scandals in sport. In the build-up to Olympic figure skating selection in 1994, Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan was viciously attacked, and suspicion immediately fell on Harding and her entourage. The scandal followed her for years.
Building on interviews with Tonya Harding (Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the story focuses less on whether Harding was complicit or even involved in The Incident, and more on presenting a profile of her as a product of her very troubled background, and how she became the best in her field as a result.
Margot Robbie does a fabulous job as Tonya Harding, but I have mixed views about the rest of the film. By the end, there is no doubt that we have huge sympathy for Harding, and this is a definite highlight. Harding is not only the hero of her own story, she is also very much a victim of life, circumstance and the people who surround her. It’s felt the most pointedly at the end, when the consequences of ‘The Incident’ hit Tonya harder than anyone else in her circle. It’s just not fair. Tonya just wants to be loved. For a fleeting moment she had that in her career but things conspired to take it all away.
Covering huge swathes of Harding’s life to give the audience background to her world view, the film steps away from a more traditional biopic approach. It recreates interviews with the real life characters, interspersing these with the dramatic action and a sprinkling of fourth-wall breaking thrown in for good measure. It is this combination which keeps the narrative moving along at a pace, and manages to keep things light, despite the clearly appalling events.
But this is not without its problems. I felt very uncomfortable laughing at a film with such a heavy proportion of scenes of domestic violence – sometimes the comedy falls even as the abuse is playing out on screen. Tonya suffers physical abuse from a number of quarters from a very early age, and while balancing the darker side of the story with comedy allows the difficult parts of the narrative to be more easily absorbed, it can lead to an uncomfortable juxtaposition and lessen the impact of the abuse.
The musical choices also tread a fine line between being smartly perfect and just a little on the nose, and I suppose the fact that I noticed means that I fall on the less positive side.
But what can’t be argued over are the performances of not only Robbie, but Alison Janney as Tonya’s outrageously pushy mother LaVona, and Paul Walter Hauser as ‘bodyguard’ Shawn Eckhardt.
It’s a movie which balances its lighter and darker sides very precariously, and I guess the extent to which the viewer likes the film will depend largely on how far they are willing to go along with that balance. Personally, I felt uncomfortable, but appreciative of the effort.
A version of this post first appeared at www.themovieisle.com