UK Release Date: 23rd February 2018
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser, Mckenna Grace, Caitlin Carver, Julianne Nicholson
Synopsis: The story of ice skating star Tonya Harding, who rose to the top against the odds, only to be brought crashing down when she is linked to a controversial attack on a rival skater.
The ‘cradle to grave’ biopic isn’t cool any more. Even films as outwardly square as Darkest Hour are now opting to focus on brief bursts of their subject’s life, rather than delving into every development of their existence. In that context, it’s perhaps odd that I, Tonya – the story of controversial American figure skater Tonya Harding – adopts a fairly conventional cradle to grave narrative. It’s in its attempts to shake that structure up a little that it falls flat on its rear end.
Margot Robbie is solid as Harding, who spent her entire career on the ice trying to transcend the stereotype of the inelegant redneck, while also embracing her roots by dancing to ZZ Top rather than classical standards. We first meet her as a child (Mckenna Grace), being abused to the top by her demanding mother (Allison Janney). She then topples headlong into another abusive relationship, with the violent Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who ultimately hatches a plan with pal Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) that mutates into the notorious attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in 1994.
Robbie is the only thing that makes I, Tonya even close to watchable. She has a good handle on the competing feelings within Tonya, who is torn between her deep mistrust of those around her and her need for support from those closest to her. Robbie also looks believable on the ice in skating sequences that are far more dynamic and interesting than any of director Craig Gillespie‘s silly flourishes – how many montages does one movie need? – born out of a desperate longing to inject energy into the biopic format.
This feels like a movie with no handle on its own tone. I, Tonya wants to have the anarchic momentum of The Wolf of Wall Street, but the result is more like Deadpool if it were somehow able to try even harder in its attempts at format subversion. Domestic abuse is a major theme running through the movie, but Steven Rogers’s script seems only too willing to undercut the seriousness of this violence with dismally misjudged comedy beats.
I, Tonya also comes unstuck in its approach to the scandalous tabloid narrative that brought its subject’s skating career to an end. A wiser movie would have made this the entire focus of the story, but Gillespie makes the audience wait well over an hour before depicting “the incident” – as characters euphemistically call it – and subsequently rushes through the aftermath like a bull that’s only allowed in the china shop for a limited time. It’s a segment of the movie that gives far too much time to Paul Walter Hauser’s depressingly poor comic relief and not enough to Robbie, who feels like a spare part in this area of the story.
There are bright spots amongst the wink-nudge tonal trickery, though, and they largely come from the performances. Allison Janney lights up the screen like a firecracker in her brief cameos and Mckenna Grace continues the strong career she began with tremendous work in the underseen drama Gifted. Unfortunately, I, Tonya is less concerned with its characters than it is with spinning its narrative into a multi-narrator tale of redneck crime that is self-admittedly based on “wildly contradictory” accounts of what happened.
The tale of Tonya Harding could certainly have birthed an excellent movie and, indeed, much of the constituent parts of that film are present in I, Tonya – not least the casting of Robbie. In the hands of Craig Gillespie, though, this end result is a muddled and often troubling take on a real-life tragedy that spins everything into an overwrought joke. It’s exactly as lacking in high-class airs and graces as Harding herself, but unfortunately only half as talented.
Pop or Poop?
Margot Robbie’s fearless, committed performance as the complex Tonya Harding is something special, but I, Tonya is not the movie to match it. Craig Gillespie’s film is a mess of different tones, with a complete lack of focus that hurts everything it is trying to say about life in the public eye and the media circus surrounding even a sniff of a high-profile scandal.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.