I, Tonya review – a biopic with more balls than bullshit

By Ryan Keating-Lambert


I, Tonya is a ballsy biopic that captures its foul-mouthed figure skater with effortless ease. Remarkable performances from both Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, and a whole lot of ice skating, obviously.

Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and based on true events in the life of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), I, Tonya recounts some of the skater’s most heated moments and relationships leading up to the incident where fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan was suspiciously attacked and forced to drop out of the U.S. championships.

A film to honour the story of a character as fierce as Tonya Harding and her triple Axel realness needs to have an equally fierce lead, and Margot Robbie was a superb choice. The actress captures the skater’s limitless drive and frustration with endless precision. The young woman is up and down like a yo-yo, thanks to her tumultuous and abusive mother LaVona Harding (Allison Janney), and baby-faced wife-beater husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan).

Janney is at her peak with LaVona and despite being 110% hateable, she still manages to bring tender subtleties to the character reinforcing the film’s somewhat objective view on the chaotic mess that was Tonya’s skating career. Stan is also notable as the husband, not to mention barely recognisable as I’m just so used to seeing him as Captain America’s Winter Soldier. A welcomed change to the actor’s career. Then there’s the insufferable low-life Shawn, played brilliantly by Paul Walter Hauser, who really makes you remember that annoying dickhead in high school. You know the one.

Tonya’s weakness however, not that it has many, is that it’s a little lengthy. The film builds up a solid rhythm with the skater’s early life and relationship with her mother, but then gets a little lost and drawn-out around the halfway mark when the skater’s marriage and career take a bit of a nose dive. Despite Robbie nailing the part, I found myself missing Janney’s poetic bitch-face in these moments.

The film has a fairly linear narrative but there are some confusing character pieces to camera that I felt weren’t needed – a few of them smack bang in the middle of some fairly turbulent scenes, making them surprising but so easy to miss.

The slack does pick up towards the third act though, and Robbie’s performance hits a visceral benchmark, plus she even pulls off a few skating moves, hardly a triple Axel though – let’s leave that up to the CGI. There’s an especially powerful shot of her applying make-up pre-skate at the Winter Olympics where the film’s playful and loyal-to-the-times soundtrack is replaced by the incessant banging of hungry spectators. A haunting scene that really captures that final crescendo in the skater’s real-life struggle.

I, Tonya is fun, frisky and darkly comedic, but still manages to hold a balanced perspective on the chaos surrounding the ‘incident’ and never paints the skater as a model American citizen. This is one biopic that won’t spoon feed you any bullshit. Some call it ‘the Good Fellas of figure skating’ and they’re kind of right.

The film is also up for 3 Oscars this year including Margot Robbie for Best Actress, Allison Janney for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a Best Achievement in Film Editing nomination.

Photo: The New York Times


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