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USA 2017
Directed by
Craig Gillespie
120 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

I, Tonya

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) rose amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in the early 90s, but her career is derailed when her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) decides he can help her to psyche-out her main opponent.

Craig Gillespie’s film has much in common with the currently screening Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Both are black tragic-comedies set in regional America, both are economically told with a lightness of touch that contrasts with the dark core of their subject matter, and both feature strong performances from their female leads (both of whom, Margot Robbie and Frances McDormand respectively,were nominated for Best Actress Oscars with the golden boy going to McDormand for her more eye-catching role). I,Tonya is based on a real life story and that, for me at least, gives it the edge but in terms of distaff entertainment, there’s not much in it.

The tragedy at the heart of I, Tonya is not the infamous 1994 attack on Harding’s chief competitor, Nancy Kerrigan (Catlin Carver) which in popular myth left her with broken kneecaps but which in reality (although the film does not tell us this) was a single fractured patella and bad bruising but rather it is Harding’s childhood.  

Tonya was brought up by a chain-smoking virago of a mother, the incongruously named LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, who makes Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes look like the Tooth Fairy), the fourth child from Golden’s fifth husband (or the fifth child from the fourth husband, I forget which). Despite her deplorable treatment of her daughter she appears to have been motivated by the realization that ice-skating may be Tonya's way out of the cycle of white trash poverty that otherwise would be her lot in life. To this effect on the one hand she spends all her money on lessons for her daughter, starting when Tonya was four years old, and on the other she subjects her to a regime of  verbal and physical abuse, figuring than the hate so engendered would make her daughter far stronger than any love could do. Ironically it was a strategy that worked, at least in some respects although in typical fashion Tonya would marry a man who beat her and who (according to this version, which is Tonya’s and therefore should be taken with a grain or six of salt), was ultimately responsible for the attack on Kerrigan).

Gillespie who had a hit ten years ago with Lars and The Real Girl (2007), a film whose appeal eluded me.  Here he takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to what is unquestionably a minor story in the scheme of things but precisely because of that the film works. Bobby Cannavale as a tabloid journalist captures the mood well when he observes that the men who carried out the attack on Kerrigan were only the biggest boobs in a story full of boobs. Steven Rogers’s script which uses the faux documentary approach to structure the narrative serves up rapid-fire, potty-mouthed dialogue and occasionally breaks the fourth wall by having the characters address us. Undoubtedly the film's trump comedy card is Paul Walter Hauser as the husband’s chronically delusional friend, Shawn, who, once again, according to this version, actually organized the attack. Adding to the entertainment value the skating scenes, which are clearly not performed by Robbie, are seamlessly integrated with the story and the use of contemporary pop music often brings a smile to one's face.

Former Neighbours starlet, Robbie makes us feel for the young woman who with a certain crude stoicism played the meagre cardsdealt her in life whilst Janney, who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, is truly frightening as the stage mother from hell. Sebastian Stan rounds things off nicely as Tonya’s husband a.k.a "The Moustache"..

If you liked Three Billboards you won’t be disappointed with I.Tonya. Or vice versa.  




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