The Truth Is A Matter Of Perspective
I, Tonya darts back and forth between candid retrospective interviews of the main characters and the events they are describing. Tonya Harding [Robbie] is introduced as a figure skating child prodigy, an extraordinarily talented individual pushed by her extraordinarily crass and hostile mother, LaVona [Janney]. As Tonya gets older, she meets Jeff Gillooly [Stan], along with his friend Shawn Eckhardt [Hauser], and starts a relationship with the rather simple Jeff. LaVona doesn’t approve of the match at all and scolds Tonya for dating an abusive individual. Blinded by love and positing that her mother hit her too, Tonya endures the relationship. Various skating tournaments come and go before Tonya is expected to perform her signature move (the triple axel – which no other American has attempted and completed in competition) at the Olympics. Technical issues lead to her coming fourth and the media pit her and fellow US skater Nancy Kerrigan against one another. Without unceremoniously unspooling the entire story (even if it is documented history and takes place in all of the trailers), events unfold and escalate until Kerrigan is assaulted and Harding’s involvement is called into question by the authorities.
For a figure skating biopic with comic undertones, I doubt many people would go into this release knowing how heavily it focuses on themes of abuse, domestic violence and class divide in America. While the Gillooly surrogate openly proclaims none of the violence actually happened, the narrative presented states it unequivocally did and through sound design, acting and make-up, the constant onslaught that Harding endures is hard to watch. Elements are played up for comedic effect but the overall presentation of the abuse and Harding’s logic that she deserves to be hit is brutal. Equally, the snobbery and exclusion she encounters because of her background and lack of funds is crushing. Every step of the way, the fact that she is one of the best in her field is overlooked because of presentation and factors about her upbringing that she has little to no control over. On multiple occasions the judges are confronted antagonistically but when Tonya quietly tries to learn why they refuse to mark her fairly, she is told “It was never entirely about the skating;” implying that her image and lifestyle have to be one that America can be proud of when sending someone to represent them on the international scene. Hurt, she responds that she doesn’t have what America wants, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” Once you realise that this exceptionally talented individual is getting beaten up and home and shut out of the one thing she’s good at, it’s heart-breaking and all builds to present a truly sympathetic central character – despite the incident she is most famously associated with.
Most biopics tend to pull centre focus on their subject and one of the greatest criticisms of this is that the supporting roles get lost in the background. This is far from the case here as the peripheral characters are rather eccentric and ensure a more rounded experience. Starting with the most eccentric, Alison Janney steals every single scene she is in by being both maniacally fun but completely irredeemable. She reasons that her motivations are sound because her own mother was nice which didn’t get her anywhere in life, whereas LaVona’s cruel manner with Tonya ensures inspiration and a thirst for success. Much like JK Simmons’ character in Whiplash I wholeheartedly disagree with this but (again much like Simmons) the performance is so intense and so repulsive, for lack of a better word, that we can’t look away and relish every moment this larger than life pseudo-villain is on screen. Two of the other prominent performances come from Stan and Hauser as Jeff and Shawn respectively. These two are hilariously pathetic male characters and feel very evocative of the self-righteous trolls that populate and patrol the internet. Weak, small, overinflated sense of ego, warped view of their importance to the story and utterly responsible for Toyna’s downfall (according to this narrative at least). Yet despite being awful human beings, both are made surprisingly endearing and entertaining through the performances.
Up until recently I’ve never been particularly impressed by either Chris Gillespie’s work or that of composer, Peter Nashel. Thankfully both work exceptionally well here. Gillespie weaves between tension and levity with ease while Nashel channels the darker tones of Carter Burwell – most notable during the execution of the assault on Kerrigan. But for everything that Gillespie gets right there are a few creative decisions which I simply can’t agree with. The majority of the film is presented through flashback as detailed in interviews by older versions of the characters, reflecting on the events. In addition to this narrative structure, every now-and-then, the film opts to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. It’s not a bad choice but it’s a seemingly neglected one which appears infrequently and feels a little jarring. Arguably one would assume the film should have gone full Wolf Of Wall Street/24 Hour Party People and do away with the interviews or just have the interviews – but the mix of both doesn’t always have the desired effect. Speaking of desired effect, the presentation of the skating routines is one which will age very badly. Admittedly, for a small independent release, the CGI masks over Robbie’s skate double are really good and the editing between each component is very impressive but when the CGI masks are obvious, they really draw you out of the impact of the moment and the achievement. There’s also the issue of plot threads that never really develop. Admittedly these are minor things but with all the jumping around, certain elements are lost in the edit. Case in point, we see a shotgun scene which we all assume will be explained but never is and Bobby Cannavale’s character is never really seen outside of the interviews so his connection to the story seems stale. And finally we have a matter of taste and opinion – the idea of horror played for laughs (much like Fargo). What happened to Kerrigan was condemnable and while this film chooses to focus on Harding’s involvement, or lack thereof, without really addressing Kerrigan as anything more than a catalytic plot point rather than a developed character. In truth, I can’t confidently say that she has any dialogue throughout the film. I, Tonya does its best to skew the roles of villain and victim but the film could have been a touch deeper if they had time to explore Nancy’s story a little more. Having said that, with a two hour run time, maybe that would push it over the edge into fully bloated territory. Who’s to say?
As with most January releases (in Britain, at least) this will be an acting award magnet and rightfully so. Unlike other biopics, it neatly avoids the traps and pitfalls of its genre and presents itself as a thoroughly engrossing and arguably well-balanced piece.
23rd February 2018
The Scene To Look Out For:
After a disappointing performance, LaVona scolds her daughter for being graceless and not caring. Feeling that all the hard work has been squandered, LaVona lashes out at the dinner table, chasing her daughter around, hurling objects at her. After one particular comment, LaVona casually picks up a knife and throws it at Tonya. Both women are startled at first before Tonya pulls the knife from her arm, slams it on the table and storms out, leaving LaVona in the only visible state of shock and regret expressed throughout the entire film; only to have the moment undercut by cutting to LaVona’s interview tape wherein she counters, “What family doesn’t argue?” It’s a nice slice of how the film takes something genuinely awful and lightens the mood with just a touch of dark levity. Whether you feel that creates awareness of abuse or cheapens it, is your call.
Like Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher or Miles Teller in Whiplash, a great deal of the praise will fall at the feet of the more outlandish performance, meaning Janney will get the lion’s share of the attention. Considering the performance she gives, I would say that is completely fair but not at the expense of Robbie. I’ve always appreciated Margot Robbie’s acting (cinematic at least) and her role as Tanya is one of extreme mental, physical and emotional dedication that it would be impossible not to acknowledge the craft on display.
“And all those people who said I couldn’t make it. Fuck you, I did”
In A Few Words:
“A tense, energetic and extremely well-performed piece with hearty doses of black comedy throughout”