REVIEW: I, Tonya
Directed by Craig Gillespie
By Christopher Spencer
Directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney. Based on the unreliable and contradicting stories from the woman herself and those who were in contact with her, I, Tonya tells the story of who Tonya Harding (Robbie) was in the world of figure skating and elsewhere.
Biopics usually tell the “based on a true story” angle which can mean different things, but instead I, Tonya opens with a message letting you know that the stories you’ll hear might not be the real truth. But it’s still a story that people closely involved with Tonya Harding wanted to tell, so it is shown here.
What we get is a portrayal of a controversial character written and performed in a way designed to change your mind. At first, you think that Tonya will just be an unsympathetic, stubborn and misguided lunatic akin to Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Margot Robbie, however, is out to explore more than that. She is mean-spirited and downright scary sometimes, but her performance evolves in every new scene and the victimisation becomes more harrowing. Her emotions are varied, and the darker times when Tonya is scared of the future become deeply moving. This is definitely the best performance of Margot Robbie’s career.
Behind her is Allison Janney as Harding’s mother LaVona, whose harsh distaste and abuse of Tonya is perfectly captured. Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gilooly shouldn’t be overlooked, as this reserved and nice-guy actor is allowed to go nuts with a character that was ultimately an emotionally fragile fool.
I, Tonya is shot in a Paul Thomas Anderson/Robert Elswit way, with long takes and sweeping close-ups to establish scenes, which I bloody loved. It’s a kind of cinematography that makes ordinary shots feel electric and moving with a pulse, very much what this story is about. It’s about exploring the life of a fast and fierce competitor whose life was torn apart by absent-minded people moving too fast with stupid ideas.
I loved the unconventional writing and direction, with the mockumentary framing and fourth-wall breaks constantly inviting the audience to look closer. However, 15 minutes could have been shaved off, some of the humour is too goofy, and it kind of ignores domestic abuse as something normal instead of a big character flaw. Also there are some CGI-face scenes involving Margot Robbie and skating that are downright awful, even if they didn’t have the biggest budget.
I, Tonya is ultimately a solid biopic that may falter in storytelling and technical aspects, but delivers absolutely incredible performances from Robbie and Janney and some excellent camerawork. This is an unflinching portrayal of a woman who ultimately was beaten down by life without a real reason, and I, Tonya will educate as much as it entertains.