For those of us who remember the 1994 figure skating controversy that erupted when US medal hopeful Nancy Kerrigan was unexpectedly assaulted, it was the ultimate good versus evil narrative. Kerrigan was the apple of America’s eye and Tanya Harding was the villain, by association to the men behind the assault. As a result, Harding’s career spiraled downwards. Twenty-three years later director Craig Gillespie revisits not only the events leading up to the Lillehamer Olympics, but the ways in which Harding’s turbulent life unjustly cast her as the villain from an early age.
Much of the film focuses on how Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) struggled to climb up the skating ranks, she was the first American woman to pull off the complicated triple axel jump, despite not having the money or the pre-defined grace associated with the sport. Living with her belligerent mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), who supported her skating ambitions from and early age, Harding faced adversity at home and on the ice at every turn. Growing up in an abusive household, Tonya fell in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) whom she thought would be the knight that saved her from her impoverished life. Unfortunately, Harding’s relationship with Gillooly, her first boyfriend, quickly became toxic and increasingly volatile throughout their marriage. Things completely fell off the rails when Gillooly and his best friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), just as Harding is on the cusp of making the U.S. Olympic team, come up with a ridiculous plan to scare Harding’s main competitors.
Easily one of the biggest, and most pleasant, surprises of the year, I, Tonya crackles with dark humour and compassion. It not only helps the audience understand Harding, but also sympathize with the direction her life has taken. By presenting it as a dark comedy, rather than sticking to traditional biopic conventions, Gillespie is able to show just how absurd the Kerrigan incident, and media circus surrounding it, was at the time. It also allows the film to take pointed jabs at the audience’s roll in the sensationalism of it all. The film knows we are here to relive 1994, but it wants to show that Tonya Harding was much more than that.
As hilarious as the film is, without ever drifting into farce, one of the main reasons I, Tonya shines is because of the outstanding performances. Margot Robbie is absolutely brilliant as Harding. She brings the perfect mix of sarcasm and emotional complexity to the role. It gets to the point where you completely forget that you are not watching the actual Tonya Harding on-screen. Robbie’s sensational performance is matched, if not superseded by Allison Janney’s marvellous turn as Golden. Stealing every scene she is in – she evokes laughs with her sharp delivery and subtle gestures – Janney proves why she is one of the most underrated actresses working today. A revelation from beginning to end, I, Tonya ranks amongst the year’s best films.
Saturday, September 16, 6:00 PM, Scotiabank 1
Tickets can be purchased at the TIFF website.