Reading between the lines of a trashy tabloid tale

The Tonya Harding scandal happened a year or so before I was making memories, instead putting my concentration into learning to talk and walk. It might’ve been on telly in the background, the Australian networks dutifully fulfilling their requirements to keep up on American scandals, but I doubt any of it sunk in. By the time I was still falling on my face and stringing short words together, the Harding scandal was already swept off the networks and the tabloid racks to make way for OJ Simpson. Tonya Harding eventually became a name I recognised tied to an ice skating scandal I knew occurred, or, as she (played by Margot Robbie) describes it in director Craig Galespie’s I, Tonya, ‘a punchline’.

Galespie, who found empathy in strange places with the odd but affecting Lars and the Real Girl (2008), expands beyond the punchline to tell the rest of the joke. Directing Steve Rogers’ script, he mashes together filmic styles: documentary-style talking heads, Malcolm in the Middle-esque turns to the camera and the kind of gritty, handheld camerawork you’ll see some of in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2018). He’s trying to keep up with Steve Roger’s maniacal script, which, based on ‘wildly contradictory’ interviews with Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly, has the fast-talking frenetic energy of Goodfellas (1990) and the stylistic acrobatics of Tarantino’s screenplay for Natural Born Killers (1994). At the centre of it all is the best performance of the year by home grown superstar Margot Robbie, who brings to the role an old-fashioned bravery and an unflattering yet empathetic portrayal of one of the most controversial figures of the 90s. It’s a wicked movie likely to excite any moviegoer craving a movie that’s cinematic because of the way it’s filmed, not how much it cost.

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In 1993 former US figure skating silver medallist Tonya Harding (she was stripped of her medal and barred from professional figure skating) was tied up with assault on her opponent (and, this movie stresses, friend) Nancy Kerrigan. The man who organised the assault was likely Jeff Gillooly, here played by Sebastian Stan. Each main character has two portrayals: the talking-head interview portions and the in-story narratives. As Gillooly, Stan finds the right dose of pigheaded assertiveness and wearied regret in the interviews, wearing an awful bit of chin fluff that stands in stark contrast to his earlier moustache, for which he ‘cannot apologise enough’. As the younger, 20-something Jeff and Tonya’s abusive boyfriend, he can’t get it right. He plays the dangerous hothead with a meek, almost whiny kind of authority, so that when he hits Tonya, it’s about as effective as a jump scare (my friend Jayden made this comparison, so I should credit him for it). It’s a shame, because his role is integral to demonstrating the filthy sewer Harding crawled out of every time she stepped onto the ice to perform.

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The other abuser in Tonya’s life, her mother LaVona, is played by Allison Janney. LaVona’s interviews are conducted while a pesky parrot chews her ear at inopportune moments, and it’s the kind of oddball prop that a seasoned actor like Janney can use to her advantage. One minute you’re laughing at the way she tells the bird to ‘fuck off’ and the next you’re cowering from her vitriolic and cruel antics as she shatters her daughter’s self-esteem after every skating comp. The constant comedic asides can be a little jarring, especially because Robbie’s performance makes sure you understand every bit of damage done to the young Harding, but the jokes usually land and the abuse hits hard, so I wouldn’t hold that against it.

For a movie about one short event, I, Tonya gets a great deal out of its 2 hour running time. Every white-trash oddball character is given enough time to make you gawp in disbelief at the kind of people in Tonya’s world, and every time Harding is on the ice, you won’t tear your eyes away, even if you couldn’t care less about figure skating. Some nifty CGI is used to replicate the more difficult moves, but a lot of it really is Robbie skating, stretching her elastic mouth into the wide, ungainly, ecstatic grins Harding was known and loved for, delighting in the only adoration she received in her life.

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I, Tonya takes the contents of a tabloid rag and turns it into a cinematic triumph. Compared to the lofty material taken on by the underwhelming Darkest Hour (2018), I’d say filmmakers ought to dredge a few more scandals out of the gossip mags to find the humanity within.