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I, Tonya (2017) starring Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan

The greatest scandal in US figure skating history

Craig Gillespie’s biopic takes a look at the life of the champion US figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) from her childhood to the aftermath of a 1994 scandal involving her husband orchestrating an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although the attack itself wasn’t her fault, she pled guilty to hindering the prosecution of Nancy’s attackers and, as part of her sentence, was forced to withdraw from the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships and resign from the US Figure Skating Association, thus effectively putting an end to her career.

The film also chronicles her white trash upbringing, the abusive nature of both her pushy mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and longtime partner/husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), as well as the prejudiced attitudes of the US Figure Skating Association judges towards her background.

Watch a trailer:

Harley Quinn escapes the shadow of Suicide Squad

Let’s face it: Margot Robbie was the one genuinely good thing about the largely dismal Suicide Squad - her Harley Quinn effortlessly charming the screen amid the confusing murk. I, Tonya strives (and largely succeeds) in giving her a movie worthy of her brassy, larger-than-life screen presence along with a whole clutch of awards and nominations. Whereas her co-star Alison Janney has walked away with wins during both the BAFTA and Golden Globe ceremonies (while Robbie has had to make do with mere nominations in the face of stiff competition from the likes of Frances McDormand and Saoirse Ronan) it’s Robbie who truly holds the viewer throughout the runtime.

During her big dialogue moments she has an almost indomitable spunk and charm in the face of adversity. She’s also pretty good on the ice here too; she had trained to be a figure skater during adolescence and is an amateur ice hockey player so we get to see a good deal of her own skills during the exhilaratingly-shot rink scenes. Some of her real-life counterpart’s more audacious jumps (such as the famous triple axel which cemented her briefly glorious reputation) are realised via slightly too obvious computer graphics. Nonetheless, her work here is impressive.

Style over substance

While Robbie is the star here, the aforementioned Janney is also worthy of attention as her doggedly overbearing mother. Her character is the most difficult kind of abuser - the sort that does so out of wanting to get the best out of people and thus sees nothing particularly wrong about her behaviour. However, while she’s arrestingly grotesque in her role, her character isn’t really given enough depth to make her register as anything other than an amusing caricature. That pretty much sums up the entire film; it’s enjoyable throughout but never goes deeper than recounting the events with a certain morbid amusement. Only Margot herself (notably during the heartbreakingly emotional court scene when she’s told that she has been banished from US professional skating) lends the storyline any real substance.

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

Craig Gillespie’s direction is inventive, a blend of Martin Scorsese-style audacious camerawork and mockumentary-style fourth wall breaks with Robbie, Janney and Sebastian Stan making in-character retrospective confessionals to camera as well as narrating over the proceedings. There are even moments where, mid reenactment of the events themselves, the actors break away from the recreations to talk to the viewer. It’s not as self-conscious as it sounds, mainly because the style is so consistently lively that such moments don’t stick out as much as they otherwise would.

However, as with Steven Rogers’ script, Gillespie merely rushes headlong through the more sensational moments of the story (from the numerous abuses that Tonya puts up with to the violent but ineptly orchestrated attack on Nancy Kerrigan), moving from one to another without fully examining the impact that they have on the central character. It wants to turn the subject into popcorn entertainment and, broadly speaking, it succeeds in just that. It’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s all vaguely hollow.

This all sounds like I’m trying to avoid recommending I, Tonya. I’m not: Robbie more than carries the film on her shoulders, ably abetted by both Stan and Janney. However, it’s hard to avoid harbouring some nagging reservations about its approach.

Runtime: 120 mins

Dir: Craig Gillespie

Script: Steven Rogers

Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Alison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

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