Arguably the Britney Spears of competitive ice-skating, Tonya Harding was the controversial American world champion whose life and career were filled with controversy and conflict in the mid-nineties. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is proving an award season favourite, with both Margot Robbie and Allison Janney nominated for their performances as monstrous mother and deviant daughter. This is evidently a Scorsese-inspired biopic which attempts to be playful with narration and the speculation that still surrounds its subject. It’s an enjoyable and humorous tale of red-neck America in the limelight and systemic abuse in the belly of America that citizens don’t like to see succeeding. Surrounded by the affluence and contrasting wealth of her fellow skaters, a young Tonya is an outcast in the world of figure-skating. Her success on the ice is solely funded by her mothers’ waitress tips something seemingly forced upon Tonya but equally resented by a contradictory and loveless mother. Allison Janney and Margot Robbie form the turbulent duo. Meanwhile Sebastian Stan is Tonya’s abusive husband, a demonstration of a continuous cycle of violence within a society pushed to the fringes. Self-narrated by Robbie’s Tonya, this is a biopic perhaps suffering from The Wolf of Wall Street syndrome. One of my least favourite films of 2014, it seems to have spawned a new age of “auto-biopic biopics” – something Goodfellas excelled at back in 1994, when the real Tonya’s story was unfolding in the American press. I, Tonya is certainly fun but certainly flawed. At its worst it’s a parade of bad wigs, at its best it’s a comment on the role of violence in the world of working-class American women.
As cold as the ice-itself, Janney’s performance has been greatly talked about. It’s certainly a nasty characterisation but perhaps a little over-reliant on the bad language, which seems a little lazy. Robbie continues to display her versatility in my favourite role of hers to date. She is as vulnerable as she is violent as helpless as she is hurtful – a victim of a broken childhood and a lack of affection. Her aggressive attempts to secure this acceptance drives her professionally. I, Tonya is joyously unapologetic and thrives on the bizarre nature of the mystery at its centre. It’s perhaps a little irritatingly meta, something that doesn’t play as well outside of America for audiences too distanced or young to have heard of the protagonist before. Although violence is at the heart of the characters and the story itself – it is the mental abuse Tonya suffers which is most interesting. From her malicious mother, to a manipulative partner, to the unforgiving and superficial behaviour of the media, Robbie presents us with a contradictory character who is caught between all three – always alone. Despite the CGI being a little distracting (Robbie’s face has been mapped onto a professional ice skater’s) the skating scenes are relentless and merciless. The harsh coldness of the ice and the sharp precision of the skates reflects Tonya’s childhood and daily reality. Watching her soar at her craft is particularly compelling when you consider the knife-edge she is balanced upon – on one side a future of serving tables and on the other celebrity, sponsorship and success. Skating is Tonya’s one constant and one true love – the noise an chaos that surround it makes it all the more captivating when we see her alone in the rink.
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