Starring Margot Robbie Sebastian Stan Julianne Nicholson Bobby Cannavale Allison Janney. Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Most sports movies are about someone who came to prove themselves, and did. Battle of Sexes, Cool Runnings, Rocky, Eddie The Eagle, Bleed for This, even Happy Gilmore. But, unlike those, this film about the infamous case of one Tonya Harding is not about a down-on-their-luck person rising through the ranks of sport to prove they can win, or if not win, at least give it a bloody good shot. This is about how the media, an abusive mother and a deadbeat husband managed to make a villain of cinematic proportions out of one woman.
I, Tonya is by and large the story of Tonya Harding, detailing her early life through to the 1994 Winter Olympics and the infamous “incident”, detailing how one poor girl became of the world’s most famous – and ultimately hated – people of all time.
From the get-go, it’s clear that director Craig Gillespie is on fire here. The film’s posters are adorned with quotes saying it’s the “Goodfellas of Figure Skating” and that may seem bizarre, but Gillespie is doing a very good impression of Martin Scorsese. The film has all the hallmarks of a Scorsese flick, from the unlikeable lead player to the jukebox soundtrack (Barracuda, Devil Woman, Romeo & Juliet all feature) to the brilliant use of fourth wall breaking, flashy editing, and camera moves. Yes, it’s Goodfellas, and it’s also Raging Bull with The Wolf of Wall Street – not just because of the Margot Robbie connection but because these films chronicle how one person came from abject poverty to being somewhat better off. The difference being of course that while Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort were both actual criminals, Tonya Harding was not. What she was was poor, a woman, and herself.
You see, oddly enough, the comparisons with Scorsese encapsulate what the actual problem with the film is, or rather, the problem that the film is demonstrating. There is a huge social imbalance between men and women, and the films demonstrates it here well. Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort were both criminals, both drug users and both absolute woman beaters who had numerous affairs – and yet, they are seen as loveable rogues, able to be forgiven. Even in her own film, Tonya Harding is hated and reviled for being no one but herself. This is brave, and stark, because what it shows is that this film isn’t just a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, it’s a story of class prejudice, sexism and cycles of domestic abuse.
The incident that Harding is so famous for – according to film – apparently has nothing to do with her. Of course, like so many things, we can never really know the extent of what Harding did or did not know, but what we do know is that in a world where Mike Tyson can bite people, can be a rapist, can be a homophobe and can still be called “a great boxer”, why can’t Tonya Harding be allowed the same “great athlete” moniker? Not only does Gillespie’s stylish direction aid this but also a note-perfect screenplay by Steven Rogers manages to cram in some great one-liners (“I’m not swearing, you cunt” is a personal favourite).
Margot Robbie excels in the role; it’s a vanity-free performance, stuck with a succession of awful but year-appropriate wigs. Robbie shows Harding is a human being stuck in cycles of abuse from her overbearing mother Lavona played with relish by Allison Janney (all but guaranteed her Academy Award) or by her dumb-as-a-stump husband Jeff. Sebastian Stan is very good in his role, able to hold his own as Jeff even as Janney and Robbie dominate the screen. The film is at it’s funniest when Janney is on screen, not just in the flashbacks but in the interviews woven through the film. She is bile-filled, and funny with only the smallest hint of regret, bird on her shoulder she spews vitriol not seen since J.K. Simmons asked Miles Teller if he was rushing or dragging.
Even so, the three central performances, and the great script, and the stylish direction all work towards a common goal which is to show a woman hated in the media for nothing more than being herself. Is she a crook? No, but she is poor, she proudly proclaims herself a redneck, and she has an attitude as anyone who is abused does. Harding may not entirely be a victim – she certainly gave as good as she got when it came to her husband – but she was certainly a victim of the media.
The film is at it’s most powerful when it’s dealing with Harding; the effect that the media have her, how she wants to loved, a daughter of a broken home, blaming herself for her father leaving, wondering why she can never find someone who won’t treat her like crap, wondering why she can’t make better scores. Harding is given depth and Robbie, without vanity, plays the woman as a human being.
The two most powerful scenes are when in an interview, Robbie looks dead into the camera and calls the media and the audience complicit in abuse, and we are, we’ve been laughing at this bizarre story the whole time, relishing the hardships, the lies, the over exaggerations. But even more powerful is when she prepares for her Olympic skate, applies her make up, and with thick red cheeks and near black lips bursts into a smiley-faced cry, the facade of a strong woman falls away and we’re left with a girl who never asked to be infamous, but did ask to be loved.
Harding may not have been a victim on all fronts, she may not have been completely innocent, but she was always destined to fall into these cycles, and the media ate it up.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.