I, Tonya (2017)

It’s Not My Fault

The trouble with biopic films often lie in the details. Whether the story leans too far one way or the other, is from a very specific source or, as is sometimes the case, complete and utter fabrication. How much you care about this poetic licence likely reflects how much the audience already knows when they walk into the cinema.

Such is the case with I, Tonya (2017), a film biographical film written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie. Run an eye over Google and you’ll soon see that there has been some considerable backlash since I, Tonya’s release and initial praise – mostly on how much or how little involvement the protagonist has in the events that unfold throughout the story.

As someone who has an extremely limited knowledge of any Olympic event, much less one that happened when I was still wearing dungarees, and who has simply never heard of Tonya Harding (and nor has anyone else I’ve asked, despite the film’s claims that Tonya was the most well known woman in the world at the time), consider this a review of the film, and not of the events around it.

Alright? Alright.

The film opens in Portland, Oregon. Under the watchful eye of her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) has been forced into a figure skating career, under the tutelage of Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) – who is at first reluctant to teach Tonya, but soon realises her talent on the ice.

Starting at the age of, well, a soft 4, Tonya soon becomes an extremely talented skater. By the time she is 15, Tonya is running rings around her peers, though it is clear that she is never quite good enough in LaVona’s eyes. This is partly due to Tonya’s constant underachievement, mostly thanks to the wider figure skating community who turn their nose up at Tonya’s apparent white trash reputation, her homemade costumes and refusal to play between the lines of the other skaters around her.

Still, she tries. During one of her many practice sessions, however, Tonya catches the eye of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his buddy Shawn Eckhardty (the flawless Paul Walter Hauser). Despite her wishes, LaVona supervises Tonya and Jeff’s burgeoning relationship and everything feels very fairy tale. Tonya has stopped going to school to concentrate on her skating, while Jeff is quite to dismiss his opportunity to go to college to stay with Tonya.

That’s when the trouble begins. Under constant pressure by LaVona, Tonya continues to strive toward success as her relationship with Jeff becomes more and more abusive. This soon bleeds into her life with her mother, who Tonya blames as the cause of her feeling like she deserves to be beaten.

Things never quite get so bad, though, as it does with LaVona. After failing to succeed at yet another competition, Tonya becomes the target of LaVona’s rage, prompting Tonya to move out of her family home and into a new place with Jeff. Things go well at first, but soon the abusive relationship returns, and Tonya is forced to cover her constant cuts and bruises as her career really begins to take hold.

Now, despite what it looks like, I, Tonya isn’t entirely about a tragic tale of domestic abuse. Featuring some truly fantastically choreographed figure skating scenes and montages, we see Tonya become a genuinely talented skater – despite her background. This is made most clear during the sequence where Tonya pulls everything she can to become the first American female figure skater to complete two triple axel jumps in a competition – whatever the hell that means. Massive credit to the film to actually make this seem tense and interesting, despite not having a ruddy clue what anybody was talking about.

This is the beginning of a true rags-to-riches story. Tonya is on the path to glory – and is soon on her way to the 1992 Winter Olympics. Things take a wobble after she loses her way with some excessive drinking and her relationship with Jeff becoming more and more troublesome, but things look up again when Tonya’s first coach convinces her to once again compete in the 1994 Winter Olympics.

It’s during her training for this that Tonya receives a death threat, immediately freaking her out and making her not want to compete. And this gives Jeff an idea.

See, Jeff isn’t all bad. Despite the fact he’s an alcoholic, abusive, bitter piece of shit, he does truly seem to love Tonya – and wants her to succeed. Hatching a scheme with his trusted sidekick Shawn, the pair meet in possibly the worst strip club I’ve ever seen to devise a plan to stick it to the competition. The plan, such as it is, involves hiring a pair of idiots to send death threats to Tonya’s main rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).

The idiots, Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds) and Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) are my favourite things in this movie. As Shawn laboriously describes his ‘agents in the field’, we are treated to the sight of a pair of confused, mostly lost looking men gently singing along to a pop song. These are two Coen Brothers rejects not cut out for work in the CIA, I can tell you that much.

Jeff believes the plan is to simply send a handful of death threats to Nancy, but Shawn has ideas of his own. During training, Nancy is targeted by Shane and is attacked, breaking her knee. This is what the whole movie has been leading up to. What follows is a rush of panic as the news filters back to Tonya, then to Jeff, while they try and piece together what on Earth is actually going on, who is to blame, and how the hell they will get out of this unscathed.

Tonya only wants to win a medal, and to skate. Jeff only wants what’s best, while Shawn only wants to prove himself. LaVona wants something, but it is never quite clear what her motive is. All I can say is, I, Tonya serves up a truly savage piece of filmmaking over a clearly quite sore subject. Not only for those who the story is about, but about the legitimacy of the sport itself.

The tone is full of black humour, with the main cast appearing as some apparently very well researched talking heads and news-spots to help fill the gaps. I can’t argue with the execution at all, and the main performances are truly incredible. The soundtrack is predictable, but completely fitting – and still great to listen to.

I would say, though, that the film seems to gloss over the grim details of Tonya’s abuse at the hands of her mother and boyfriend/husband. Except for a single scene where things really get bad with LaVona, the domestic violence against Tonya is cut in a way that feels like the film is trying to provoke laughter, or cheer, but just feels uncomfortable. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I think the lack of consequences seem to put me off it. A hard-cut punch to someone who falls off-screen seems like it should be comical, and without the sight of someone actually being hurt… I dunno, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

The overall sense, however, is right. From the perspective of the story, Tonya is a victim of her circumstances and of the people around her. Whatever the real life story, you can’t help but feel sorry for Tonya, and I think this hugely down to Margot Robbie’s absolutely phenomenal performance throughout the film. Tonya is tough to like as a character, but Robbie brings some real heart and soul to the role that just made me want to keep watching.

Regardless of how much you know about the true story, I, Tonya is a solid watch. The only sad thing is we never got to work out what the hell is up with Shawn – but I guess that’s what the internet is for.

Yours, A P Tyler

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