Review: Margot Robbie skates on thin ice in dark biopic I, Tonya
PUBLISHED: 11:19 23 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:19 23 February 2018
Craig Gillespie's biopic of US figure skating champion Tonya Harding starring Margot Robbie illuminates the 1994 attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan with a cast of unlikeable characters including her violent ex-husband and domineering mother.
I, Tonya (15)
This is a film that goes wrong right from the poster, maybe even the title. Like writers trying to co-opt the phrase Fear and Loathing for their work, the title gives itself airs and graces even as it reveals a chronic failure of imagination.
Underneath that title is Margot Robbie in her skating costume and with a defiant look on her face, trying to persuade us that she’s Tonya Harding.
I may not know much about ice skating but I know that the Margot Robbie role in that story is not plucky, scrappy, unloved, redneck underdog Tonya Harding, but elegant, privileged princess Nancy Kerrigan, the rival skater destined to receive a crowbar to the knee in a plot emanating from Tonya’s ex-husband.
Except Nancy Kerrigan can’t be the Robbie role because Kerrigan isn’t a role in this film. The film is all about Harding, turning her life into a restless, garish, underclass pantomime, a piece of knockabout brawlderville, full of domestic violence and fourth wall breaks.
The cast of characters is like a cross between Shameless and The Addams Family. Tonya’s ghoulish and unloving mother LaVona (a piece of epic deadpan by Allison Janney) encourages her talent on the ice and then wants to sabotage her career.
To get away from her, she marries an abusive berk Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and constantly runs up against the snobbery of the ice skating judges who don’t want this trailer trash representing them at the Olympics.
The film makes a big point about how unreliable its narrative is, with the participants being shown in interviews contradicting each other, which is handy for a film that wants it every which way, but primarily loose.
The script isn’t really committed to any line in terms of who did what and is shifty in the response it is searching for from audience.
You are offered ample opportunities to laugh at the stupid hicks, and to do so through the protective layer of various distancing devices, such as having people talking straight to camera: you’re not quite laughing at them, you’re laughing through them.
But then it wants us to see this as a ‘Me Too’ tale of a female resilience, a woman struggling against a family that treats her as a punchbag and a society that continually wants to put and keep, her down.
Casting Robbie as Harding does her a disservice. Her body shape is wrong: Harding was squat and not pretty; that, as much as her background was what counted against her. She had the talent but it just didn’t seem to sit well on her. Robbie is tall and slender and has a generic blonde beauty that doesn’t suggest struggle.