Loving hating Tonya Harding

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I, Tonya (MA). Director: Craig Gillespie. Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale. 119 minutes

Margot Robbie in I, TonyaAny Australian who'd own up to watching Neighbours during the late noughties (hey, we all need to rest our brains from time to time) may have felt a pang of pride in recent years at seeing Ramsay Street alumnus Margot Robbie's ascent to the heights of acclaimed Hollywood lead.

True, there's a touch of uncanny-valley in seeing her face awkwardly superimposed onto the body of a stunt double as she portrays former US figure skater Tonya Harding in action. But it doesn't diminish her skill in bringing to the screen this bizarre, emotionally charged true(ish) story.

Fellow Australian Gillespie has made a compelling mishmash of the saga, acknowledging via introductory title card that the film is based on 'unironic' and 'contradictory' testimony by the key players.

He combines mockumentary style talking heads with fourth-wall-breaking recreations of the events leading up to, and following, the kneecapping of Harding's skating archrival Nancy Kerrigan weeks prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics. As a film it is both shocking and hilarious, though if you're looking for concrete answers, you're looking in the wrong place.

What Gillespie gives us instead is a portrait of a sympathetic antihero, exquisitely rendered by Robbie, whose rough and 'redneck' manner (her word) stands in contrast to her profound abilities, and at odds with the gentility of her chosen sport.

Her farcical mantra 'It wasn't my fault' whenever things go wrong is given weight by a portrayal of serial abuse: by Harding's mother (Janney), and Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan), who helped plan 'the incident' that earned Harding the wrath of the tabloids and put her career on ice.

 

"Explicitly, I, Tonya puts the viewer in the role of voyeuristic tabloid readers who need someone to hate as much as they need someone to love."

 

The abusers are not limited to those who knew Harding intimately. Explicitly, I, Tonya (for which Robbie served as a producer as well as star) puts the viewer in the role of voyeuristic tabloid readers; of celebrity-hungry 'Americans' (easily transposed as all western consumers of news media) who need someone to hate as much as they need someone to love.

Gold Coast raised Robbie displays a knack for morphing her sunny surfer-girl looks into grimaces of fury or devastating self-loathing, in defiance of her (and Harding's) audience's scandal-hungry gaze.

The film places front and centre the athletic skill of Harding, who before her fall from grace had been the first American woman to execute the famously difficult triple axle jump in competition; and whose ferocious ambition is built on a simple, lifelong love of skating.

Ignore the slightly dodgy CGI employed to recreate the ice-bound acrobatics, and it's hard not to be caught up in the whirlwind of her talent, juxtaposed with the hardship of her daily life. Based as it is on 'contradictory' testimony, I, Tonya is suitably chaotic, but affecting.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Tonya Harding, Craig Gillespie, Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale


 

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Existing comments

Thank you for this review - I think I will try to catch it now (I'd been inclined to dismiss it). I love your phrase, re the 'audience's scandal-hungry gaze' - it sums up contemporary responses to the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea beautifully also.
Barry G | 22 February 2018


Being an avid watcher at film awards season, I am wondering if I, Tonya has been nominated in the make-up category.
Pam | 22 February 2018


My wife and I walked out of the film "I Tonya" half-way, mezmerised by her performance but unable to accept or justify the "in your face" of the full on foul swearing and extreme verbal and physical domestic violence that diminished the point of the film. . We felt we were voyeurs to both. Having been a Clinical Psychologist for 25 yrs, and exposed to the full variety of domestic violence in OZ &NZ: this worse feature of relationship for any child, continuing on into adulthood was over-played. We stay up every night to watch the South Korea Winter Olympics, that inspire in victory and defeat. The unfortunate timing of "I Tonya" could easily sour some. The "on-ice" sequences were inspirational and uplifting but left us with a jaundiced feeling. We voted with our feet.
Karl Cameron-Jackson | 22 February 2018


If Tonya Harding’s back story is important to knowing why Nancy Kerrigan’s knee was busted, then it’s a pity that Kerrigan and Harding didn’t get to do the John Paul II – Mehmet Ali Agca thing ---- although, now that the back story is out, the opportunity is still there.
Roy Chen Yee | 03 March 2018


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