There are two things I can say in favour of I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s frequently callous and unempathetic biopic of the former figure skater Tonya Harding. Firstly, the skating scenes, the camera swirling and gliding along with Harding, are impressively staged, especially when she lands her first triple axel.
Secondly, Margot Robbie gives a very decent performance as Harding. In the quiet, understated moments when she first meets Jeff (Sebastian Stan) before marrying him, there is something fully believable about her shyness. Later, when Tonya is at breaking point, there is an incomprehension on Robbie’s face that would have been deeply moving had it not been contained within a movie sordidly fixated with her psychological and physical torment.
About which: Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) is a hideous role, played with a heartless cynicism by Janney that I found insufferably irritating. (The audience laughed quite regularly at her scenes; whereas I, during one truly vacuous conversation, only just curbed the urge to walk out of the cinema.)
Jeff, who seems unassuming and mild-mannered, is a detestable character, instigating a plan which ends with rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s assault, leading to Harding’s expulsion from the sport. The film posits the (excessive) scenes in which he repeatedly beats Tonya within a ‘mockumentary’-style framing device, so characters will turn to camera and intone “This happened,” or “That never happened,” in yet another dim-witted attempt to wring comedy from Harding’s abuse.
After a brief pause in this catalogue of cruelty, I realised that I, Tonya completely fails to characterise its protagonist. We learn next to nothing about her personality, her life. So, when a metatheatrical pivot occurs, with Harding announcing into the camera that “You’re all my attackers, too,” it was enough to make me bury my face into my palms. This line best exemplifies the film’s emotional manipulation, vagueness, and plain stupidity.
There is probably a way to create an insightful film about Tonya Harding’s life – but it’s not with this cast, not with this writing, and not with this director. A very trying experience.
Image: Entertainment One