Robbie Skates for Gold in “I, Tonya”
The saga of Tonya Harding was reality television before the term even existed. As a college student, I remember turning on the news each night as the attack of her rival Nancy Kerrigan was investigated. For a while it seemed as though there was a new revelation each night and as more of Harding’s life was exposed, the more sordid the affair became and the more obvious it was that the disgraced skater surely had something to do with the assault. Her abrasive, uncouth behavior certainly didn’t help matters and soon she Harding was the most hated woman in America.
Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya sets out to tell this well-known tale in a different light, by giving the accused equal time. Working from interviews he conducted with all of the principals in the case, the film is structured in a documentary-like style as the actor’s portraying their real-life counterparts speak directly to the screen to explain themselves with flashbacks fleshing out the facts…as they recall them. The result is a seemingly authentic look at the events in question that put a decidedly different spin on things.
Margot Robbie, who served as one of the movie’s producers, gives a career-defining performance as Harding, bringing to life the contradictory sides of the woman with a ferocity reflective of the skater’s drive as well as her own in her attempt to separate herself from her peers. The actress is a force to be reckoned with as we see Tonya dealing with her abusive, jealous mother (Allison Janney), foolishly seeking refuge with her equally violent husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and contending with judges who penalize her on the ice due to her being from the wrong side of the tracks.
As the film unfolds, Harding is seen as determined on the ice, strong in the face of abuse and most poignantly, a victim of circumstances out of her control. Her mother LaVona is a haridan of the first order, a constantly critical, bitter woman who resents her daughter’s success. Never satisfied with anything her daughter does, she abuses Tonya both physically and emotionally as she holds back her approval and love like a miser. Janney is very good here and brings as much nuance as she can to a one-note role. Stan is a surprise, shedding his superhero persona from the “Captain America” films to bring the misguided and rather stupid Gillooly to life, a man just smart enough to get into a heap of trouble.
That being said this is Robbie’s show and she makes the most of it. As far away from the glamorous Naomi Lapaglia from The Wolf of Wall Street as you can imagine, the actress grabs ahold of this role and runs with it. Tough, vulnerable, stupid and finally sympathetic, she brings new shadings to the Harding we think we know, casting her as a young woman who never understood that her environment doomed her from the start. It’s a surprisingly strong turn and marks Robbie’s arrival as a major star. In the end, I, Tonya may net the actress some gold in the form of an Oscar and serves as bittersweet vindication for its subject.