It was a pre-internet international media frenzy, revealing an underworld of sports classism, revenge and controversy; competitor Tonya Harding allegedly sabotages friend and fellow ice-skating champion Nancy Kerrigan weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics by orchestrating a planned attack. Thrust directly into the limelight, the 23-year-old Oregon-born’s life rapidly descended into chaos under both public and federal scrutiny, alongside husband Jeff Gillooly and friend Shawn Eckhardt. Defeated by Kerrigan at the ceremony and eventually banned from figure skating forever, dreams of triumph were instantly destroyed. Yet Harding’s journey into the limelight was always fraught with tragedy, an exhausting battle towards ever-eluding success marred by lifelong abuse.
Decades later, Craig Gillespie’s new Oscar-contending film I, Tonya reflects upon the bizarre events in his tragicomic mockumentary starring Margot Robbie in the titular role. Revealing intimate circumstances of Harding’s difficult life, we are invited to understand the legendary events with empathy and a fresh perspective. Regrettably, however, the film’s cack-handed approach in representing both child abuse and domestic violence is irresponsible, with the sensationalist tone severely hindering the biopic of any potential cinematic greatness.
Weeks before the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Kerrigan is struck in the knee with a batton after a training session in Detroit. The attack has been planned by Harding’s husband and bodyguard, in an attempt to rig the event and secure Harding’s winning success. Recounted in the form of ‘irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews’ (states a title card), Harding’s upbringing and the events leading to the infamous scandal are portrayed through a series of flashbacks. Narrated by various significant figures, Robbie is joined alongside her manipulative and unloving mother LaVona (barely recognisable Alison Janney), teen-romance-turned-physically-abusive husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and friend/bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Each character’s perspective on their relationship and experience of Harding is conflicting, recreating an account which perfectly mirrors the sensationalist approach of the media during the 1990s. Did Harding know about the attack on Kerrigan before it happened? Was she a manipulative mastermind or an innocent chess piece in a much darker game? Although Gillespie does not provide concrete answers to long-lasting questions, he does trace the childhood and adolescence of a deeply troubled woman, confronting the class issues Harding continually faced from a critical standpoint.
Undeniably, the film’s appraisal in the run-up to the 90th Academy Awards is deserved for a variety of important reasons. Most notably, Robbie’s performance (which required an impressive level of physical skill alongside the ability to impersonate Harding from ages 15 to 45) is show-stopping, a tour-de-force of emotions which sees her worthy of the Best Actress nomination. The skilful use of CGI during the intensely technical figure skating sequences (including the triple axel) is barely noticeable, and Robbie’s routines provide necessary, mesmerising breaks amidst the film’s relentless emotional intensity. Even the sensationalist approach to I, Tonya works in theory as the perfect formatting for an infamous tale overshadowed by media-born myth.
Yet, the overwhelming satirical tone of the film creates a somewhat problematic depiction of both violence towards children and women. As Harding is continually hit by her mother and Gillooly (narrowly dodging bullets and knives), scenes are intercepted with darkly comic narration. In an interview with New York Times, Robbie stated ‘we wanted to emphasize that [domestic abuse] is a cycle and this is so routine for her because it’s happened her whole life. She can emotionally disconnect in that moment and speak to the audience’. Perhaps Gillespie’s intentions were to soften the violent sequences with comedy, to ensure the film was not alienated by its approach to stereotypically taboo subjects. Unfortunately, it results in the film depicting abuse in a seemingly irresponsible manner. There is also something deeply troubling about the true victim of the 1994 attack missing from I, Tonya. Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) is only glimpsed in brief flashback snippets or discussed in passing and her absence highlights the loss of a very important role in this bizarre and upsetting story.
Dir: Craig Gillespie
Scr: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianna Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale
Prd: Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Steven Rogers, Bryan Unkeless
DOP: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Music: Peter Nashal
Runtime: 120 mins