The infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan case has been a staple of pop culture and controversy ever since it happened. The story of Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap being bashed by a crook hired by a friend of Tonya’s husband, and the subsequent media backlash against Tonya that followed has been the focus of TV movies, music, sketches etc. However, this is the first theatrically released film to focus on this story. And Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers have taken this story and created an incredibly funny and dramatic film out of it.
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was raised from birth to be a figure skater by her controlling and verbally abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). One day, she meets and eventually marries Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), but this romance leads to many problems, and it culminates in the infamous Kerrigan hit in 1994, which was an attempt to prevent her from beating Tonya in the Olympics. Tonya’s success and Jeff’s safety are put in jeopardy by this, and the film follows their lives before and after this event and the investigation into it. The story also goes back and forth between the main narrative and interview segments with older versions of the characters.
The most interesting aspect of the structure is how it embraces fact and fiction. The film depicts events that did happen, but also features events that are left up to question. For example, Tonya and Jeff both make accusations of domestic violence against each other in the interview segments, and despite showing these moments in the main narrative, the film does not confirm who is right. There are other examples of this, and the film uses the interview segments to bridge many of the individual sequences together. The story is also self-aware of how crazy the real-life event was, so it keeps a sense of dark humour throughout, whether that be the creative and shocking insults that characters throw at each other, or in how stupid the people behind the crime seem (You will realise it once you see the crime play out).
The characters and performances easily shine brightest. Now, the film could have run into a roadblock in the character department, because many of the characters are thoroughly unlikeable and ill-advised. And yet, the film gives every major character a clearly defined personality, making them feel like human beings, as opposed to callous caricatures. Tonya may be petty and angry most of the time, but she just wants to be treated well by others. Jeff might be awkward and abusive, but he wants the same thing as Tonya. LaVona might be incredibly mean, but she wants what is best for her daughter. The film gets its dramatic mileage out of showing the destructive relationships between these people, and the things that they do to each other to get what they want.
The main three actors are at the top of their game. Allison Janney is picking up awards for her role and she deserves them, as she both looks unrecognisable and plays her role in a layered way, coming across as vicious and hilarious. Sebastian Stan nails both the awkwardness and the menace of Jeff Gillooly, whilst simultaneously encouraging a sense of sympathy. However, it’s Margot Robbie as Tonya who really shines. She nails the confidence and the vulnerability of her character and is brilliant when she goes down the deep end. There’s a scene in a mirror and a scene in a courtroom that will probably make you cry and feel tremendous sympathy for her.
The film is also very well put together. The often-hand-held cinematography is gritty, but also visually pleasing, and it goes with the dark tone of many scenes. The soundtrack is well chosen, with appropriate songs accompanying certain scenes. And the editing is top notch, not only balancing the interview sections and the main narrative well, but also balancing the darkness and comedy perfectly. The excellent make-up is also worth mentioning, as it ages the actors well in the interview segments and makes each actor in general look like their real counterparts.
As for any problems, I can only think of one. There are some moments in the skating sequences in which you can tell that Margot Robbie’s head has been imposed onto a body double doing the actual skating. It’s not glaring, but it is sometimes distracting and out of place.
Overall, I,Tonya is a superb biopic that finds the drama in it’s dark source material, but doesn’t skimp out on the humour of it altogether. The performances are great, the filmmaking is engaging, and the writing is top-notch. Even if it gets overlooked at the Oscars, it is a worthwhile watch on its own merits.