I, Tonya is a tough watch that humanises a reviled figure from sporting history

I, Tonya (2018) – Film Review

I Tonya, film poster

I Tonya, film poster

For people over a certain age, the names Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan conjure up the memory of a moment in the lead-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer – Norway – that will go down in infamy.

The aftermath an attack on Kerrigan saw her ‘rival’ Harding implicated and then demonised in what was later described as a amateurish plot to derail her fellow US skater’s Olympic chances.

The mostly forgotten details of the event itself, and Harding’s own story, are told through the potentially unreliable filter of two of the main characters – Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly – commenting on the events in retrospect.

I, Tonya is the story behind the woman who had impoverished origins and fought hard all her life against the elitist American ice skating establishment who looked down on her even as she became the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition.

Harding, played by Margot Robbie, devoted her entire life to ice skating but also had to contend with brutal domestic violence from her monstrous mother, LaVona (Alison Janney) and later her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as she battled her way to the top of the ice skating world.

I, Tonya – Tonya Harding’s side of the infamous story

It’s this upbringing that shaped Harding as a person and it’s hard to look beyond the performances of the main trio of characters with comic relief by Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt – a friend of Gillooly’s who formulated the fateful attack plan.

I, Tonya is constructed in a faux documentary style with additional tweaks, but loaded with black humour to balance against some of the raw scenes of domestic violence contained within a less than perfect home life for Harding.

There’s precious little of her future rival Kerrigan, leaving watchers with what will probably remain an idealised view of Harding’s rival but this is clearly a film about Harding and it’s no surprise that Kerrigan’s part in the film is minimised.

Period footage confirms some of the detail behind events depicted in the film but we also see Tonya during key episodes from her life, hamstrung by her acid tongued foul mouthed abusive mother, when she isn’t chain-smoking, and hampered by an inadequate and violent husband whose weak-willed association with his deluded friend will ruin Harding’s career.

The end, though, belongs to Harding whose world crumbles as the scandal reaches tipping point – and Robbie’s performance at that point edges that of her on-screen mother and you’re left with feelings of sympathy and understanding even if there’s a little skating over the exact details.

I, Tonya (15; very strong language, scenes of domestic violence; 119 minutes)

Director(s):  Craig Gillespie

Cast Includes: Margot Robbie, Bobby Cannavale, Sebastian Stan, Mckenna Grace, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson

Summary: I, TONYA is a US black comedy drama about former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, who was prosecuted in 1994 for an attack on her team rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Rating: **** (A tough watch that humanises a reviled figure from sporting history)