Being a sports star isn’t as easy as one might believe – the rigorous training, constant travelling and fiercely-fought competitions would place a strain on even the toughest athletes. Hoping to encapsulate these struggles is a story centring on one of the sporting world’s most fascinating individuals, and far better than it has any right to be.
Once, there was this girl who
Swore that one day she would be a figure skating champion
And when she finally made it,
She saw some other girl who was better;
And so she hired some guy to club her in the kneecap
Those poetic words are not this author’s own, but those of modern-day poet Weird Al Yankovic from his song “Headline News”. The lyrics refer to Tonya Harding, the subject of this very film who, for two decades now, has been a source of fodder for aspiring comedians everywhere, thanks to her being implicated in the attack of fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan. But rather than focus entirely on “the incident”, I, Tonya opts to look at what made Harding the woman she is.
A native of Oregon, Harding (played in the film by Margot Robbie) took interest in skating from childhood, winning her first competition at the age of just four. Born into a low socio-economic household, she was raised by her cold, abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney) before entering into a relationship with the equally-vicious Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). As a result of her tough upbringing, Harding was outspoken and hard-as-nails, a persona that did her no favours in the elegant pursuit of figure skating.
One of the most surprising things about I, Tonya is how sympathetically the story treats its eponymous character. Harding was, and still is, a villain in the eyes of many, so to see a film take her side will rile many – Nancy Kerrigan included. The movie even implies that Harding had no prior knowledge of Kerrigan’s beating, a fact many people would refute. Yet against all odds, I, Tonya manages to win over the naysayers and make them feel sorry for Harding, to the point where they are rooting for her by story’s end.
The acting is another aspect that makes I, Tonya so special. The exceptionally-talented Margot Robbie is nothing short of perfect in the title role, going above and beyond to deliver the performance of her lifetime. What Robbie so brilliantly does is convey all of Harding’s complexities, depicting her as strong, yet vulnerable; resilient, yet despondent; aggressive, yet feeble. Allison Janney’s deliciously-wicked LaVona is also entertaining to watch, and a role which should win her a much-deserved Academy Award.
Adding to these delights is the Martin Scorsese vibe that imbues this picture. With its quasi-documentary approach, pieces-to-camera and nostalgic pop/rock soundtrack, one could me mistaken for thinking that Scorsese himself directed I, Tonya, even though that credit belongs to Craig Gillespie – who does a brilliant job, it should be said. On top of these flourishes are the short, sharp bursts of humour that happen when one least expects them to, which only make the film more entertaining.
Funny, flamboyant and occasionally poignant, I, Tonya is undoubtedly the greatest thrill of this Awards Season. Made special by the direction and superb performances, it provides humanity to a person who probably should have received more all those years ago – even if she did club her rival’s kneecap.