Figure skater Tonya Harding achieved infamy in 1994 when she was involved in a scandal involving the hobbling of rival Nancy Kerrigan with a retractable baton. For a moment she was America’s number one villain, before O.J. Simpson stole her tabloid thunder.
I, Tonya turns this debacle into a lurid, pitch black comedy that doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Structured around “wildly contradictory” interviews with those involved – including Harding (Margot Robbie), her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her monstrous mother LaVona (Alison Janney) – it purports that Gillooly was the mastermind behind “the incident”, although both he and Harding were eventually charged.
What is clear, however, is that Tonya’s white trash upbringing conflicted with the image of the elegant sport at which she excelled – being the first US skater to accomplish the tricky manoeuvre of a ‘triple axel’. Skating in trashy homemade costumes to ZZ Top and abusing the judges, she was the antithesis of the prim and proper poster girl, dragging figure skating into the gutter.
The first half of the film is the best and delivers the biggest laughs; the dark humour as persistent as the pet parrot that pecks at LaVona’s ear throughout.
Although Tonya’s formative years under an abusive mother and violent husband shouldn’t be fodder for comedy, the mockumentary device and fourth wall breaking does soften the blows, with LaVona and Gillooly interjecting “that never happened!”
It also helps that Janney is fantastic as the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking LaVona; stealing every scene she’s in and griping when she’s been offscreen for too long.
Curiously though, when it comes to the actual Kerrigan incident, the film loses some of it’s brazen energy, sidelining Tonya to focus on the hare-brained scheme concocted by Gillooly and his corpulent mate Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser).
The Oscar-nominated Robbie plays the role with undisguised relish, but try as she might, can never truly convince us that Tonya is worthy of sympathy. “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline,” she laments.
As a biopic on the disgraced Olympian, I,Tonya is as questionable as the testimonies given, but as a redneck American freakshow, it’s an absolute hoot.
In cinemas: January 25, 2018
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Alison Janney
Directed by: Craig Gillespie