“Generally, people either love Tonya or..not big fans.’ So says Julianne Nicholson’s Diane Rawlinson early in I, Tonya: ‘Just like people love America or are not big fans.’ A brilliantly pitched understatement, the line offers bitingly funny insight of the sort the film lacks as a whole.
I, Tonya is not the biopic you might be expecting. Quite befitting, as it goes, for the story of an individual who never did conform to expectation: ‘Those b****es didn’t know what hit ‘em’. Telling the tale of how Tonya Harding rose from a poor, ‘redneck’ background to become the premiere figure skater in America – before infamously falling from grace – I, Tonya dives between documentary and mockumentary, stopping off gleefully at black comedy along the way. The result is, like its heroine, rough around the edges but nonetheless admirable.
In a peculiar fashion, Craig Gillespie’s film almost seems to have written itself. Scripting and producing I, Tonya, Steven Rogers began by interviewing the story’s real life protagonist: Tonya, and her ex-husband: Jeff Gillooly. Naturally, these recorded meetings appear during the film’s credits but they do so as, much like Rufus Norris’ London Road, direct comparisons to recreated segments from across the film, featuring Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan respectively.
Key to the construction of Gillespie’s film is that the pair have startling divergent memories of the events leading up to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya’s rival on the ice, in 1994. An opening title had warned as much, promising a story that is both ‘wildly contradictory’ and ‘totally true’. Tonya and Jeff are equally unreliable narrators – their stories loaded with inconsistencies – and neither quite opens up. Indeed, come the credits, it is hard to honest argue that you know these individuals any more than you did at the start. If anything, you know less by virtue of their shared conviction that ‘the press’ got it all wrong; the result is hardly flattering.
Between these compact, replication interviews, Craig Gillespie directs a chronological dramatisation of Tonya’s life, beginning with her arrival at professional coaching, pushed along by foul-mouthed mother LaVona (Alison Janney), at the age of four. Mckenna Grace once again excels in playing the ‘child prodigy’ type as the ageing Tonya, before Robbie takes to the rink from the – deeply unconvincing – age of fifteen. From here on, Tonya fights off snobbery and class struggles, a destructive mother, absent father and (potentially) abusive husband to achieve skills on ice that no American woman had ever done before.
If she hasn’t the ability to convey the physical appearance of a girl twelve years her junior, Robbie overcomes this with a performance that succeeds on almost every other level to bring compelling depth to occasionally bidimensional writing. Others among the cast fare less well, largely due to the film’s inability to juggle its biopic roots with a smartly conceived ploy at undermining the nature of melodramatic documentary itself. Enhanced make-up and caricature representations build a sense of theatre, a grottier affair contraposed to the elitism of figure skating ideals. On the ice, Robbie is the total embodied of her character and, with the aid of intelligent CGI, seamless.
At its best, I, Tonya offers up a pleasingly unsettling ride. It is, however, an uneven one that’s never quite anarchic enough and lacks more than superficial insight. An interview-led documentary version of the film would probably have brought more to the table – an irony, as it was a documentary that inspired the film to begin with.