I, Tonya

Sarah Ward

Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie shines in this broad but sharp biopic about disgraced ‘90s ice skater Tonya Harding.
I, Tonya

Image: Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.

When American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked in the lead up to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, reports varied. Fellow skater Tonya Harding insisted that she had no involvement in the incident, even when her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt were charged and convicted for their part. They claimed that she knew all along, but she would eventually plead guilty to hindering the prosecution. Either way, the resulting turmoil cost Harding her career while thrusting her further into a spotlight she’d long had a love-hate relationship with. Never quite fitting the quiet, elegant image usually associated with the sport, she went from high-achieving outsider to the undisputed villain of the women’s skating world. 

Of course, even the above description isn’t the only way of viewing Harding’s situation. It might be the story put forward by darkly comedic biopic I, Tonya, though the film recognises that the truth is a matter of perspective not only where her tale is involved, but in the way we all approach our lives. Here, as played by Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad) at her determined and feisty best, the skater has her take on events. Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, Logan Lucky) has his as well. Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, Locked Away) offers his thoughts, while Harding’s chain-smoking no-nonsense mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, TV’s Mom) isn’t one to shy away from her own opinions. 

Directed by Australian filmmaker Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours), I, Tonya is framed by to-camera interviews making these differing viewpoints clear, with screenwriter Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) basing part of his script on interviews with Harding and Gillooly. Between contrasting missives, the movie recreates everything from Harding’s childhood prowess on the ice, to her tough upbringing, to being frowned upon by her skating coach, judges and peers. Accordingly, with such a playful, fourth wall-breaking approach taking centre stage, the true story becomes a larger-than-life yarn delivered in energetic bursts to an upbeat rock soundtrack. Whether a pre-teen Tonya (Mckenna Grace, Gifted) is begging her father not to leave, LaVona and Gillooly are serving up verbal and physical abuse, or Harding is discovering that even landing a triple Axel can’t win over her detractors, the film glides forward on irreverence as it knowing blends fact and fiction. 

Unsurprisingly, that’s often jarring. The tonal delicacy required to balance the humour of Harding and her mother’s oversized personalities with the horror of domestic abuse – and, with the central attack on Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, Dear White People) too – isn’t one that the feature always masters across its two hours. What does shine through, however, isn’t a case of a flashy style monopolising attention, or a fantastic central performance carrying an otherwise hit-and-miss effort. Both ring true at points, particularly when it comes to Robbie’s blistering portrayal of Harding as a fiery, fighting product of many a battle. Still, alongside its statement-making willingness to contemplate what truth really means, what resonates is the way I, Tonya savvily dissects the causes of Harding’s predicament as it displays the aftermath.

Indeed, as an exploration of class and societal culpability, I, Tonya proves as smart as the questions it poses. In a movie that’s filled with boisterous chatter, it doesn’t overtly ask why Harding’s background was greeted with such dismay in the figure-skating realm, or how a girl raised in a state of constant conflict can escape her engrained mindset, purely because it doesn’t need to. Those queries are as plain to see as Harding’s derided outfits, and her pain over excelling at her routines only to see her better-off competitors earn top scores. Gillespie and Rogers never paint their subject as a victim; rather, they show how much of the circus surrounding her story cuts both ways. It’s there that the film’s not-always-convincing construction serves it best as well: with viewers now well-familiar with the mockumentary conceit, its use inspires a distinctive initial impression; and yet, beneath its broad, brash attempt to garner laughs sits something sharp and probing.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

I, Tonya
Director: Craig Gillespie
USA, 2017, 120 mins

Release date: 25 January
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: MA

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay