Film review: I, TONYA by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Ostensibly a biopic of notorious former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya is a sharp if at times overly quirky satire on the perverse culture of American celebrity as well as a disturbing expose of what, according the film, was a life of tragic abuse.

In an already lauded performance Margot Robbie plays Harding as an emotionally damaged self-confessed red neck whose life , the film alleges, was ruined by vile people and appalling choices. In a kind of Mommy Dearest meets Whiplash scenario Tonya, according to the film, was brutalised from childhood by her mother La Vona (Allison Janney). Forced to commit her life to figure skating, Tonya won national championships and Olympics selection but never her mother’s approval. The film suggests that in an attempt to escape La Vona’s draconian rule by marrying porno-moustache wearing oddball Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Tonya only landed herself in a more abusive relationship that at times threatened to turn deadly. While the film covers itself with a caveat about the questionable accuracy of its storyline, it’s still horrendous to think Tonya suffered even a fraction of the violent abuse she endures here.  In what is depicted as a perverse attempt to maintain Tonya’s affection, Giloolley and his buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) allegedly hatched a plan that lead to the infamous Nancy Kerrigan incident, one that came to define Harding’s public persona to this day.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) wears his cinematic references on his sleeve here. Tonya’s story has been transformed Scorsese-like into a fever dream of maniacal ambition, kinetic action and biting humour with Henry Hill-esque narration and a killer soundtrack of pulverising 70’s rock. There’s also a touch of Boogie Nights in the film’s depiction of twisted celebrity and of The Virgin Suicides in its gauzy retro feel and ironic humour.

Still, it’s not just a grab bag of references and influences as Gillespie gives the film a clear identity punching through its familiar stylings with remarkable energy and wit.   Also, while far from a traditional sports film, I, Tonya believably captures the world of figure skating and with the aid of CGI makes Robbie appear to be a genuine skating champion.

The plaudits for Robbie’s performance are well-deserved as she infuses the character of Harding with a mix of laughable trashiness, confronting anger and touching vulnerability. Sebastian Stan is also excellent making the hapless yet (allegedly) violent Gillooly both a figure of menace and comedy. Two support performances, though, almost steal the movie. Allison Janney – who looks weirdly like Red Symons here – is unforgettable as a succubus-like LaVona bringing an astonishing cold-heartedness and perverse humour to the role. Even topping her performance, though, is Paul Walter Hauser’s portrayal of Shawn as an astonishingly delusional numbskull who claims, despite all evidence, to be Tonya’s bodyguard and even a secret agent. His strange, self-satisfied, Walter Mitty-esque ramblings about his imaginary life are jaw-droppingly weird and hilarious.

Although at times a little derivative and occasionally smug in its self-aware humour I, Tonya still manages to succeed in just about every department and reveals once again that truth or at least something close to it is stranger than fiction.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Biopic/ drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Craig Gillespie.

Release date: 25th Jan 2018.

Running time: 120 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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