One may wonder; is there something fundamentally wrong with society when a film is made not about the triumphant comeback of US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan following a horrifying attack from a competitor, but in fact is all about said competitor?
Have we become so fascinated with complex, flawed individuals we don’t celebrate goodness?
Director Craig Gillespie seems aware of such questions with his film ‘I, Tonya’ – at one moment Tonya Harding notes: “America, they want someone to love but they want someone to hate.”
Tonya Harding became a villain perhaps not without reason, but also out of narrative convenience, and the script by Steven Rogers seems to ask who was Tonya Harding truly and was she really a villain.
The film is also not interested in offering a definitive answer, since it is not interested in giving a definitive account of what happened. Rogers noticed differing stories in interviews from Harding and former husband Jeff Gillooly, and decided that contradiction would be part of the film’s storyline.
So there is a documentary set-up to proceedings with major participants telling their version of events and then we see depictions of the past from a certain point of view. Tellingly, Nancy Kerrigan is not present to tell her story; this remains Tonya’s tale to tell.
The film runs at a breakneck pace, with casual observations about poverty, the 24-hour news cycle that blossomed at that time, parental and spousal abuse, competitive sports and gender politics.
Not all themes get hammered home, but this is a good thing as it adds to the richness of what is going on and how there is not just one cause and effect. There is a moment in the third act when two characters are thrilled by the media attention, while a third seems to be the only one aware of the hell that is about to descend upon them.
Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly plays many different versions of his character. A shy teenager, a jilted lover, a passive-supportive man and an abusive husband, and in Stan’s performance we see the distinct possibility that he was actually all of these things.
Allison Janney has now won at the Golden Globes and the SAGs for her portrayal of Tonya’s mother, LaVona Fay Golden. A strong, larger than life character it is in LaVona we can make a lot of excuses for Tonya’s later choices even if LaVona would never have been this stupid.
Producer and star Margot Robbie gives the film everything she has as Tonya; physically she’s trained hard to skate, keeps her accent throughout and does the heaviest lifting in emotional scenes. She is the heart of the film. There is a scene where she eats a TV dinner in a crummy dwelling and we know exactly how she feels.
The struggle of Harding to rise above her station through ice-skating and the complex, but destructive relationship she shared with Gillooly is perfectly conveyed.
The narrative structure of the film at times does frustrate though. It’s hard to know how to ultimately feel about scenes that may not have happened and characters who may be completely different in temperament in the next scene.
This is smart film with a lot to say and performances that haunt. It remains interesting throughout and displays a sly sense of humour.
But does it answer: who was Tonya Harding? We may never know, but the film does portray Tonya as more than just a punchline.