Tuesday, 9 January 2018

I, Tonya



My memory of the Tonya Harding affair (back in 1994) is so vague that I was able to watch I, Tonya with almost no idea what was going to happen next. But I knew from the start that whatever was going to happen, it wouldn’t be good. That’s because the film begins with brief interviews with all of the major players (years after the events) which make it clear that not one of them is to be believed. Indeed, the only sympathetic characters in the film are Tonya’s two skating coaches, whose patience must have been extraordinary.

Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is a very sad, almost horrific, story of abuse and lies told as a dark comedy by the many unsympathetic characters involved, not one of whom can be trusted. Besides not knowing whether the film is telling anything resembling a true story, the fact that this story is based on actual events involving one of the greatest American figure skaters of the time makes it hard to view as a dark comedy. Imagine watching the O.J. Simpson story as a dark comedy. Wouldn’t work. The Tonya Harding story is much less horrific than that, and the comedy was often hilarious, but I’m still not sure it worked. It was, however, endlessly fascinating, with some of the best performances of the year.

Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, is a young woman with an incredible skating talent. She was on her way to becoming perhaps the greatest figure skater in the world. But to get to that point she had to overcome two abusive relationships: one with her overbearing mother (LaVona, played by Allison Janney), who forced Tonya to practice from the age of three; and one with her partner, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who hit Tonya regularly (something she was used to). Then there’s Jeff’s close friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a man who believes he’s actually a spy and is capable of doing and saying the most ludicrous things imaginable. Only Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya’s long-suffering coach, seems to live a normal life. 

Would Tonya have gone as far as she did without LaVona and Jeff? We’ll never know. But I, Tonya makes it clear that her relationship with Jeff was a pretty bad idea from day one, as was Jeff’s relationship with Shawn. Through it all, no matter how unsympathetic Tonya can be, one can’t help wanting her to get away from these people and succeed with her life. That’s because Robbie’s performance is spot on.

As good as Robbie is, it was Janney and Hauser whose performances were jaw-dropping. [Janney deserved her Golden Globe, though Laurie Metcalfe was at least as good in Lady Bird.] The music was loud and effective (though why the songs were mostly from the 70’s is a mystery), the cinematography was well done, and the style was both original and captivating. All in all, a very entertaining film with some good things to say about media frenzy. Too bad I couldn’t help feeling that the film was also, at times, part of the problem. But what puts I, Tonya into the ***+ range is the way it reflects on the lies we all tell ourselves to create our own versions of the truth. My mug is up.

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