Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hausey
“I mean, come on! What kind of friggin' person bashes in their friend's knee? Who would do that to a friend?”
It remains one of sport’s most infamous moments. January 6th, 1994, the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in Detroit. After completing her practice skate, top US skater Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted and clubbed on the knee by a then-unknown assailant – her pain caught on camera for the world to see, mere weeks from the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. The media was sent into a frenzy as allegations that Kerrigan’s on-ice rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind the attack. I, Tonya is the not-definitively definitive account (the movies word, not mine) of the incident from the eyes of the Ice Rebel, Tonya Harding.
Forced into the world of figure skating at the age of four by her obnoxious mother LaVona (Janney), Tonya Harding (Robbie) quickly became one of the best figure skaters in the USA. Through (alleged) beatings and neglect, Harding quickly learned that skating was her only choice in life and her only outlet from her abuse. When the brilliantly named Jeff Gillooly (Stan) comes onto the scene and the relationship between him and Harding blossoms, it unknowingly signified the beginning of the end. Harding becoming the first American to successfully land the near-impossible triple axel jump (in competition) meant nothing off the ice as Gillooly spiralled into possessiveness and physical abuse towards her, and LaVona remaining the cold, hard bitch she always was. On top of that, the skating world looked down on her for her background, on-ice presentation and “un-American” way of life – the walls were beginning to close in. As the story weaves to the notorious 1994 “incident” and the Winter Olympics, the bungled collusion of Gillooly and plump bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Hauser) against Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) takes precedence leading to the explosive aftermath.
1994 wasn’t short of momentous moments – Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa’s first black president, the infamous OJ Simpson trial, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, the advent of…Friends and also the incident that decades later spawned I, Tonya. Blending interviews with the actual subjects, mock-up interviews with the ‘characters’ and a biographical nature of film-making, the movie focuses on Harding’s early life and career before focusing more on the moment that defined her career. It’s this element that helps the movie succeed in the way it does – rather than settling for a drama surrounding the incident, Craig Gillespie delivers a black comedy bursting with pathos, emotion, caper and some occasional fun that depicts Tonya Harding the person, not the punchline.
The narrative weaves in and out of varying viewpoints, opinions and recollections – via Harding, LaVona, Gillooly, Eckhardt, a tabloid show (Hard Copy) producer (Cannavale) and trainer Diane Rawlinson (Nicholson) - without ever becoming muddy or convoluted. The flashbacks and present-day interviews merge wonderfully with what is shown on-screen, including some brief fourth wall smashing commentary, and allow for the expository parts to be a device rather than a hindrance. The writing by Steven Rogers is precise and scathing, almost painting Harding as the victim as opposed to Kerrigan – without ever sensationalising or condoning any dark deeds. It’ll make you feel sympathy for the much-maligned scourge of skating as her tumultuous upbringing is bought into focus, and also the abusive, suffocating relationship with Gillooly and the shattering loss of her only life path – her career.
In an astonishingly good performance, Margot Robbie is a knockout as Harding. She snarls, drawls, smiles and bites her way through the movie and is near-unrecognisable under the 90s-inspired hair and makeup. Not content with delivering the goods on-ice and in more colourful moments, Robbie also shines in the contemplative, quieter moments – it really is a magnetic, triple axel of a performance. Equally as compelling is Allison Janney as the acerbic, horrendous LaVona – never content unless she is viciously knocking her daughter down a few pegs (verbally and physically) and she is genuinely quite terrifying throughout her scene-stealing participation. The supporting cast of Stan – weaselly, benign and oppressive -, Cannavale and Hausey further help to prop the movie up exceptionally.
There are some wonderful moments of lingering, flowing one-shot camerawork on show throughout the movie, and on the whole DoP Nicolas Karakatsanis has crafted a fine looking movie. The skating scenes are shot with the same intensity as the dramatic, personal moments and fizzle with the pomp and beauty the sport is renowned for. The music cues felt right in I, Tonya (I’m not a huge fan of the trend generally) and it helped to have some utter belters on the tracklist – Dire Strait’s Romeo and Juliet, Spirit in the Sky, The Passenger and Sleeping Bag by ZZ Top to name a few cuts.
Humour and severity take equal standing during the movie. Much of the humour can be placed firmly in the dark category – whether it’s put-downs or physical violence – or the Coen Brothers-esque caper as the clueless Gillooly and Eckhardt flail through their masterplan. There is an awful lot of physical abuse in the movie, and it’s not all ‘laughed off’ either, it does get pretty brutal at times. As the walls close in around Harding, there’s a real sense of overarching tragedy, and indeed surprising sadness that stems from the writing and performances.
With its ‘he said – she said – they said’ manner of dealing with the narrative, I, Tonya never lets up or becomes dull – it’s a constant roller-coaster ride. Two juggernaut performances from Robbie and Janney drive the movie forward and whilst the movie doesn’t deliver concrete evidence, it implores you to take sides with a group of people you probably rather wouldn’t. Exhilarating, compelling and downright fun – I, Tonya receives a perfect score on and off the ice.
January 2nd 2018