Fascinating exploration of ambition, human relationships, and the idea of ‘objective truth’
Yes, it’s another five star review. Once again, it is totally deserved. I was quite desperate to see this film when it came out, but typically it has taken me literal years to get round to it. Telling the ‘true’ story of figure-skater Tonya Harding and an infamous incident where another skater was physically assaulted, director Craig Gillespie offers an honest, brutal, and yet amusing portrayal of what may or may not have happened.
I, Tonya claims to be based on what it calls ‘contradictory’ interviews with its principal participants, and throughout it plays with the idea of what is objectively ‘true’. Are we getting a ‘real’ account, or a fictionalised narrative? It offers clever commentary not just on the incident itself, but on the nature of the biopic – we could get completely different images of a person depending on whose version we choose to dramatise. It is told in a fairly straightforward way for the first section, until Tonya suddenly breaks the fourth wall, punching through and reminding us that what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily a ‘true’ story, but one we’re being told by a narrator of questionable reliability. The energy this imparts is carried forward through the rest of the film, which is pacey and gripping.
The standout performance is, understandably, Margot Robbie (who also produced the movie). She brings a sensitivity and realness to a role which could have felt one-note. Tonya is portrayed as someone pushed forward by maltreatment, from her family, partner, and society at large. She is a woman clinging to agency in a world that seeks to control and contain her. She is ambitious in spite of expectations, and her fiery temperament is seen as balancing a deep-seated and utterly understandable vulnerability.
In addition to Robbie, Allison Janney delivers a masterful performance. Despite being a huge fan of her West Wing role as CJ Craig, I was soon lost in her character, Tonya’s mother. There is just such a sense of reality to her – a woman trying to vicariously achieve something, to raise her daughter up and out of poverty and the failure she feels she has made of her own life. Yet she manages to steer clear of all the clichés that calls to mind. Perhaps the best thing about her is that she makes no pretense at likability. She is an unpleasant, cruel woman, whose motivations we come to understand, if not her methods. Janney deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, as well as a slew of other awards and nominations.
I, Tonya is a brutal watch; it doesn’t shy away from depictions of domestic violence. There is a painful honesty to the brutality of suffering – the violence is not normalised as such, but shown as an expected part of life, something to be tolerated. The relationship between Tonya and Jeff feels like one of the most realistic portrayals of an abusive relationship I have seen on screen. Jeff is not cartoonishly evil, he doesn’t menace and leer like a villain. He is a man who believes he knows his rights, and acts on them. He is portrayed as thinking he is motivated by love. It is these harmful ideologies that trap so many women (and men) in destructive and oppressive relationships. Sebastian Stan, though slightly dwarfed by the outstanding performances of his co-stars, holds his own, and is believable and immersive. All of the actors melt into their characters, disappearing into their stories. Comic relief is offered by Paul Walter Hauser’s Shawn, but even this character has depth, acting as an at times not so subtle critique of small-town ideologies. His delusions of grandeur are fed by a deliberate avoidance of anything that would lead him to question his superiority. I’m sure his character will be painfully familiar to many of us.
Despite its upsetting subject matter, I, Tonya, was an utterly gripping watch. It is well-paced, well-edited, and thought-provoking, with some magnificent performances. I only wish I hadn’t waited three years to see it. I know I won’t be waiting that long to watch it again.
What did you think of I, Tonya? Amazingly the only other film I’ve seen of Margot Robbie’s is About Time, and I have completely forgotten about her character in it, even though I love that film. Which of her movies should I try next?