I, Tonya

 

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A skater cuts an ambiguous figure in a real-life tale given a stylised treatment.

 
I, Tonya

Margot Robbie

 

Most films based on true stories come up with a standard and by now over-familiar statement acknowledging that the truth has been subjected to dramatisation. I, Tonya, a film about the life of the skating star Tonya Harding played by Margot Robbie, actually opens with its own written statement on the subject, a wonderfully memorable variation that directly references Harding and her one-time husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). We are told here that I, Tonya is based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with the two of them.

 

Harding attained fame in 1991 when she became a champion and notoriety followed a few years later when a rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan, suffered an attack and legal proceedings ensued. Those accused included Gillooly and Tonya's bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and just how much prior awareness Tonya herself had of what they were up to remains controversial. Such a real-life tale would seem to lend itself to a filmed drama, but the big surprise of Craig Gillespie's film writer by Steven Rogers is the originality of its approach. That opening comment provides a hint of what is in store, but the film goes much further than one would expect. I, Tonya is described in its press publicity as an absurd, irreverent and piercing portrayal of Harding's life, but even that undersells its novelty.

 

In a movie that breaks all the rules, I, Tonya introduces us to Tonya's formidably pushy mother (Allison Janney) and to the often aggressive Jeff in a way that invites laughter amidst all the abuse. This is possible because on being interviewed the two central characters address the camera direct and, by offering conflicting accounts, encourage us to regard them objectively with an awareness of the inherent absurdity. Thus, it is in keeping that when Tonya refers to herself in childhood as a happy, well-adjusted girl we promptly see a brief flashback image of her shooting at a rabbit and missing. For that matter, when the main narrative emerges, shot unlike the initial interview footage in full 'Scope, we find a character on screen directly addressing the audience to tell us that what is being portrayed didn't happen that way. Yet another element challenging any sense of realism is the frequent use of songs on the soundtrack at the whim of the filmmakers.

 

This bizarre approach should in theory be unworkable, but for two thirds of I, Tonya it succeeds thanks to the pacing, the smart dialogue and the strong performances (Robbie, also a producer, relishes the lead role but it is the extraordinary Janney, playing the mother to the hilt yet with a control that keeps melodrama at bay, who steals the film and now has a Bafta to prove it). But at 119 minutes the movie comes to feel decidedly drawn out and, once the story moves on to the Nancy Kerrigan incident, the novel styling of the narrative comes to feel inappropriate: the humour no longer fits and, while the mix has worked up to this point, it has done so at the price of making us observers, albeit intrigued ones. Once events require us to relate directly to the characters and to decide what we really feel about them, the wheels come off the vehicle. That's a pity, but there's a lot here to relish until that happens.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, Mckenna Grace, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith.

 

Dir Craig Gillespie, Pro Bryan Unkeless, Steven Rogers, Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerley, Screenplay Steven Rogers, Ph Nicolas Karakatsanis, Pro Des Jade Healy, Ed Tatiana S. Riegel, Music Jeff Russo, Costumes Jennifer Johnson.

 

LuckyChap Entertainment/Clubhouse Pictures/AI-Film-Entertainment One.
119 mins. USA/UK. 2017. Rel: 23 February 2018. Cert. 15.