I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars.
An alternately delightful and heartbreaking mockumentary romp of a biopic, I, Tonya features a mesmerizing performance by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding. Transformed from her natural healthy, toned beauty into something rougher and less graceful – though without the occasional ostentatious ugly makeover of films like Monster or Gold – Robbie gives it her all as a working-class survivor of serious childhood abuse who makes it to the pinnacle of her profession only to be brought down by past demons. It’s a tragic tale, but told here with such brio and panache that it can sometimes be hard to remember that this is a true story with real, unhappy consequences.
That is both part of the film’s great charm, and source of its occasional failings, as well. We follow Harding from her early years to the present, with many flash-forwards and flashbacks in between, all anchored by talking-head interviews of the main actors, in their roles, ostensibly speaking the real words of the characters they play. An initial title card tells us that these are “irony-free,” meticulously noted re-enactments, which means they are anything but. Allison Janney (The Girl on the Train), as Harding’s nightmare of a mother, and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The First Avenger), as Harding’s main squeeze (who goes from boyfriend to husband to ex-husband) embrace their parts with the same relish as does Robbie, and their back-and-forth conversation through these interviews is as entertaining as their scene work. We can’t help but sit back and enjoy ourselves, until we realize who sad it all is.
For those who don’t remember, Tonya Harding was on her way to the 1994 Olympics, after a hard slog winning her way to awards and respect, when some inept goons kneecapped her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The subsequent investigation revealed that though Harding may not have been involved in the planning of the actual incident, she was, at best, an accomplice after the fact. Part of her punishment was to be banned, for life, from the sport she loved. An unintended consequence was that she became the butt of many comedians’ jokes. I remember thinking of her, at the time, as an unqualified – if not very bright – villain. To its great credit, I, Tonya has made me reevaluate that impression, selling the notion that she was simply unable to escape some very bad people. Yes, the events were ridiculous bordering on ludicrous, but as portrayed here, the tragedy was rooted in Harding’s deeply miserable upbringing.
After growing up poor (and abused), she rose to prominence in the skating world by becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel. Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm), working off a script by Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers), expertly takes us through the major moments in Harding’s career, with Robbie doing a fine impression of actual skating (thanks to coaches and doubles). Beyond the broad humor, the story is profoundly moving, showcasing hard-fought triumphs and shattered dreams. I laughed and I cried, especially at the end, when we see the real Harding, in archival footage, completing the triple axel that we had earlier witnessed via re-enactment. She looks so happy, unaware of what is to come. As much as I enjoyed so much of the movie, I can’t quite reconcile its mocking absurdity with this profound sadness. The square of one and the circle of the other are each perfect, but don’t always fit perfectly together.