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I, Tonya film review: Margot Robbie is outstanding in a black comedy merging fact with fiction

I, Tonya is Australian director Craig Gillespie’s fourth-wall breaking biopic about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. In the questions it raises about guilt and implication, the individual versus society, the film riffs on Bob Dylan’s blame-searching song Who Killed Davey Moore?, which probed the roles of people associated with a boxer who died in the ring. Should blame purely be assigned to the boxer for participating, or were there other potential culprits: the manager for profiteering, the crowd for chanting, the opponent for landing the deadly blow?

Harding has always denied knowing about the incident for which she is best remembered: the knee-capping of an opponent (with a metal baton in January 1994) from a more privileged background. Assuming Harding’s story is true, was this her fault anyway, for engaging with unsavoury sorts and being cognisant of a less severe crime (the mailing of death threats)? Was it the fault of her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) for enlisting the services of crooks?

Should we factor in the prejudice of figure skating judges, unfairly marking Harding down because she didn’t wear a nice costume and project a wholesome image? What about Harding’s physically and emotionally abusive mother LaVona (a wickedly entertaining Alison Janney) who conditioned her daughter to fight fire with fire? Or society itself, i.e. a broken education system, for not lending a hand?

Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers do not make excuses for their subjects, but do make a film partly about making excuses. This is why the hackneyed, The Office-esque mockumentary format works so well in I,Tonya. Like the film’s title, which evokes the taking of an oath, it makes a point that the truth is elusive no matter what the context. Gillespie not only acknowledges a disconnect between fact and fiction, but he feeds off it.

I, Tonya has a dangerous fizz. The drama isn’t cheapened by comedy, and the comedy doesn’t undermine the drama.

The recent Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri mistook anger for righteousness, wallowing in carnage inflicted by people whose lower class circumstances limit their options, propelled by the nastiest of events: the murder and rape of a teenager. I, Tonya on the other hand ascertains that its subjects never had much of a chance. Only then does it probe them for accountability, inside a context with satirical and symbolic potential: figure skating as a microcosm of society, and/or an arena to study class privilege. It is a sports and performance film that’s even more more cynical than Darren Aronofsky’s ballerina horror Black Swan, because it points outside rather than within – it’s less interested in psychology than context and association.

The fourth wall of I, Tonya is also broken at unpredictable points inside the narrative proper, i.e. during a dramatic and/or humorous moment a character will briefly address the audience. A similar technique was used in director Adam McKay’s GFC explainer The Big Short (which Robbie appeared in) to bring clarity to complicated subjects. Here it has the reverse effect, further deranging truth and muddying waters, making it clear the storytellers are not capable of telling this story in factually accurate ways.

It is a film with sharp and pointy edges, fiercely honest because of (not despite) understanding its limitations.

Margot Robbie, whose celebrity-shedding performance has scored her an Academy Award nomination, could hardly come across more differently here than in The Big Short, appearing in a bathtub clutching a glass of champagne. Her excellent, attention-grabbing portrayal of Harding paints a picture of a rough as guts woman, without the need for extreme makeup to kick it in this direction. The point is made that there is not necessarily much separating glamour from hideousness; sometimes just an attitude.

Gillespie extracts comedy from the behaviour of small time crooks and wannabe masterminds, as the Coen brothers did so memorably in Fargo, which this film reminded me of. But in visions of domestic abuse and other disturbing topics, the joke-making comes to a screeching halt and the blows really land. I, Tonya has a dangerous fizz. The drama isn’t cheapened by comedy, and the comedy doesn’t undermine the drama.

It is a film with sharp and pointy edges, fiercely honest because of (not despite) understanding its limitations. Nobody would come away thinking they had experienced the gospel truth. The combination of humour and sadness, fake documentary and fake recreation, reality and artifice, crackles and fizzes. Like the film itself, the characters tell the truth about lying, and lie about telling the truth.

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14 responses to “I, Tonya film review: Margot Robbie is outstanding in a black comedy merging fact with fiction

  1. Great review of a superb film. I confess to being surprised how good the film was and although Margot Robbie was marvellous several of the others were fabulous too; the mother, the idiot bodyguard, even the appalling boyfriend.

  2. So where did the snarky enewsletter headline come from… “MARGOT ROBBIE HAS THE WRONG BODY FRAME TO PORTRAY TONYA HARDING, AMY SCHUMMER (sp) WOULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER CHOICE.” ??? The review was good, and I didn’t see this anywhere within, thankfully. Tonya barely broke 5′ and was small and athletic.

    1. It was in the comments oohl. The newsletter you received was clearly labelled as the comments of readers. Cheers, Ray

  3. I saw “I, Tonya” today at my partners urging because she knew about the storyline. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the movie and send bouquets to Margo Robbie. I now have the conundum of deciding whether she, Frances McDormand or Sally Hawkins will get my vote for the Best Actress Oscar. I’m leaning towards Margot….

  4. Don’t care about MR’s shape – the shape of her talent should give her the Oscar – particularly over the v boring Streep effort

  5. Saw this today. It’s my movie of the year after having seen all the contenders (unless Phantom Thread can dethrone it). Margot Robbie’s turn as Tonya was transformative and powerful. For me its the best movie of 2017. Allison Janney is also superb. I hope they both win the Oscars.

    1. Craig Gillespie has made four wall-breaking biopics about disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding ???

      Jesus, he might want to diversify his material a bit.

      1. No, he’s made a ‘fourth-wall breaking’ movie. Breaking the fourth wall is when the characters directly address the audience. Deadpool is a great example.

  6. Margot Robbie has the wrong body frame to portray Tonya Harding,Amy schummer would have been a better choice she would have brought the “white Trashiness”abscribed to Harding however Robbie’s portrayal although ambiguous makes you root for harding in the end though we are still asking Did she know? On talent alone she would have won, the olympic committee didn’t like her image and tried to sabotage her.

    1. Thank you for giving one comment that sums up much of what Tonya Harding dealt with. The constant obsession over Margot Robbie & Harding’s appearance is the perfect reinforcement of figure skating as discipline & punishment. Rewards could only go to skaters who fit the image of a”lady” & you appear to think that means being skinny. So a woman’s body weight is to be policed & messages sent so she can learn to internalize these values & discipline herself. Referring to her poverty in a derogatory rather than sympathetic way reinforces the ways class is used to stratify women’s status. I think her biggest sin was being clearly ambitious – not at all ladylike. So not much has changed in some ppl’s minds. Actually if you’ve seen the film & heard the grunts & panting caused by the sheer physical hard work involved you’d realise Amy Shumer would have to have a lot more muscle to be a top figure skater like Tonya Harding.

  7. The film is also, in its way, an indictment of the whole world of figure skating. Time and again I have watched (personally I don’t have much time for it but my Canadian wife loves it) a breathtaking performance not even get a medal because hey, you know they didn’t win the European championship, or the Worlds last year or whatever. Clearly the (nearly always Russian in the pairs and men’s, Russian or the right kind of US woman) can skate worse than one or two others and win.

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