Film & Television

‘I, Tonya’: shaped by two Australians’ divergent sensibilities

By Lauren Carroll Harris
Margot Robbie brings the nuance, while director Craig Gillespie plays it for laughs

A litany of hardship defined US ice skater Tonya Harding’s life in Portland, Oregon, leading up to the scandal that derailed her in 1994. At age four she was a tiny, talented skater. In the years that followed, she was abused by her mother, sexually assaulted by her half-brother and brutalised by her husband. By her late teens, she was practising six hours a day for the US championships, while working in a hardware store and driving a forklift. She was also the only American woman to have landed a much-revered move called the triple axel. Every time she touched down from her three-and-a-half revolutions, she felt the vindication of mass adoration and conquered hardship. And by 23, her Olympic dream was over. After obstructing the investigation into an assailant’s attack on her opponent, nice-girl Nancy Kerrigan, she was banned from skating for life. Her abusive husband was behind the conspiracy, of which Tonya knew nothing. Perhaps.

These are the contours of the events of I, Tonya. A classic American tale of wrecked champions, failed criminal mischief, misogynist numbskulls, and, in Tonya’s own words, “poor rednecks”, the film is shaped by the input of two Australians in Hollywood: director Craig Gillespie (perhaps best known for the indie comedy Lars and the Real Girl) and Margot Robbie, who has ascended from Neighbours graduate to Scorsese collaborator and glowing A-lister. Robbie is a producer on this film, which sympathetically presents Tonya as an early casualty of the dawning 24-hour news cycle, and the centre of a grand American myth as unreal as that of JonBenét Ramsey’s murder. Life for women and girls in the media spotlight is rarely easy. Here, Tonya’s betrayal unfolds in a 1990s storm of morning news vultures, crunchy hairspray and cheap lycra. “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated, then I was just a punchline,” says Robbie as Tonya, glaring with bitter resignation at the camera at age 44.

I, Tonya is replete with such confessional antics. It is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”, the latter being Harding’s husband and ruination. Characters break the fourth wall to say, “This is not what happened.” Fake home videos of Tonya’s childhood unspool in a square analogue format, and the actors also play their characters in the present day, addressing the camera directly to frame the events unfolding in flashback.

If Tonya is the anti-heroine with dappled self-awareness, her chain-smoking mother LaVona is the straight-up antagonist, and Allison Janney has earned an Oscar nomination for the role. With a dire bowl cut, a parrot on her shoulder and oxygen pipes in her nostrils, LaVona is a classic Janney creation. As wry as ever, the character actress drains all warmth from her face as she calls her daughter a “graceless bulldyke” on the ice, pays a spectator to heckle Tonya to give her the edge of rage on the rink, or throws a crappy steak knife across the dining room table and lands it in Tonya’s arm.

Robbie’s performance, which spans Tonya’s teens to her mid-forties, has the same cut-throat precision as Harding’s skating. At first she’s all vulnerability in blue eyeliner, but through the years a hardness sets in across her eyes and smile. Robbie’s Tonya is neither victim nor innocent, with a ruthlessness as both an athlete and as a person, inherited from her mother: “Nancy gets hit one time,” she says to the camera, “and the whole world shits itself. For me, it’s a daily occurrence.” Tonya is a woman who has been chronically hard done by, and Robbie gives the slippery suggestion that, although Harding may not have ordered the strike on Nancy Kerrigan, she had the capacity in her heart to do so.

Nowhere is Robbie’s performance more alive than in the close-shot skating sequences. Over the credits, grainy video of real Tonya plays in wide shot, and it’s only then that you realise the extent to which Robbie has really aced it. Tonya was aping pretty girliness, and as you witness Robbie’s emphatic movements and unabashed, almost maniacally gleeful pride in landing each triple axel, you sense that the judges punished her bombast, her refusal to squeeze her muscles into the mould of the soft ice skater princess.

When Tonya is unjustly denied a top award after landing a triple axel, she lashes across the ice and demands a rationale. “Some of these girls have paid their dues,” says one sleepy-eyed judge. The Oscars operate on much the same logic of career recognition and personality impressions over film quality. The role of Tonya Harding is indeed Oscar bait – a real historical figure demanding real physical transformation, and much more than an impersonation – and after a series of supporting and blockbuster roles, it’s proof that Robbie can anchor a film and pull off a serious role. But the actress is neither the fresh ingenue (Timothée Chalamet in the best actor category) nor the beloved industry stalwart (Frances McDormand, unawarded by the Academy since 1996’s Fargo, nominated alongside Robbie in the best actress category) that the Oscars tend to reward.

Beyond that, Tonya Harding is the right role in the wrong film for Robbie. I, Tonya is momentarily enjoyable, even entertaining. But you don’t feel the full hurt of Tonya’s downfall. Neither Gillespie nor writer Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Stepmom, Kate & Leopold) has the sensibility to lucidly, subtly navigate the black comedic tone for which they reach. Their irreverence manifests in broad sketches of the film’s places and people, and, before long, the meta-gimmicks of fourth-wall addresses and quirky camera whip-arounds reach a cartoony limit. (“Well, my storyline is disappearing right now,” says Janney’s wicked mother to us directly at one point. “What. The. Fuck.”) The music cues hold much the same buoyant and insistent obviousness, opening with Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”.

Gillespie is so intent on the breakneck rhythm of a dark indie comedy that he won’t let up for a few extra storytelling beats to dwell on how truly bleak Tonya’s situation is at what passes for home. Those pauses and plateaux of melancholy are what would be required to raise the dramatic stakes. It’s all played for laughs at the expense of the white trash. Robbie’s performance – the way she holds her cereal spoon and chews with grim intensity – and a few heartbreaking art direction details – the dishes piled up behind Tonya in her middle-aged talking-head moments – are instead loaded with the task of providing the nuance.

The genre Gillespie establishes can’t hold up once things get real – once what the characters all refer to as “the incident” occurs. A lingering but thematically unclear shot of a Ronald Reagan election poster in Tonya’s broken marital home is emblematic of the confusion overtaking the storytelling decisions. I, Tonya is really about the difficulty inherent in rendering unbelievable but true events on screen, of coming to terms with the perversity of actual people. It takes filmmakers with the storytelling intelligence of Richard Linklater (as in his true crime comedy Bernie) or Steven Soderbergh to navigate the tragicomic shifts of these deep American delusions.

Life hasn’t delivered Tonya the classic redemption arc that so much cinema, even of the low-budget independent variety, craves. It’s Robbie’s performance itself that is the troubling tonic for Tonya’s legacy, even though the film tries to have it both ways by conceding the unreliability of Tonya as a narrator of her own marred trajectory. Hers is an underdog narrative, a bad mother narrative, a betrayal narrative too true and too troubling for the filmmakers to which it has been entrusted. Robbie’s performance, on the other hand, is another story.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

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