I, Tonya review: I for idolised, I for ill-treated, I for imperfect

  • I, Tonya (2018)

In 1994, just before the Winter Olympics, a massive scandal shook America up: an ice skater Tonya Harding was accused of planning and executing an attack on her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan. The FBI and media became preoccupied with nitpicking the incident: the primer pursuing justice, the latter seeking out a juicy story. The disgraced sportswoman was never rehabilitated, but she never really disappeared from the public eye either; although Craig Gillespie’s film doesn’t take sides in attempts to clean her reputation, it recreates a vivid image of her public persona in the context of her personal life that never spared her a punch.

i tonya review

Thanks to the film structure, the plot immerses us from the very beginning, stacking a handful of differing perspectives on the event against each other. Steering away from the usual pompousness biopics can easily fall prey to, the film upholds its sarcastic tone, revelling in its dark humour and provoking us to laugh despite the insane events we observe. The dissonance between the tone and the portrayed events strikes us again and again, capitalising on the shock value to finally turn its back on us and question our complicity as viewers.

The split screen, interview sequences followed by the recreation of the events, or even a “film within a film” signalled with the titles compose a fascinating video collage which embraces the gossip and varying perspectives as well as the facts. And it has quite a lot to unpack: starting with Tonya’s early life and taking us through her rise to fame, it takes a closer look at abusive relationships that she’s tangled in. A group of unreliable narrators destroy our trust quite early on, filling us in with varying versions of the events and making us pick up the investigation as the film maps them out, taking up every single opportunity to add juicy, distracting details to the depiction.

Interestingly, Tonya’s passion for the ice skating isn’t only a medium to depict the zero-to-hero story. Many biopics pinpointed by critics as Oscar bait often fall into this trap; a set goal is a seemingly unattainable holy grail and a mark of irreversible triumph. Here, the triple axel is Tonya’s ticket to success and the milestone that changes the course of action in a handful of varying ways along the way: it’s the goal to strive for, a confidence booster, a downfall prophecy, and the only thing to be loved for. Once it’s in the story, it keeps returning like a boomerang until the final scene. And the closing is a perfect bottom line for the entire film, albeit one with a very bleak message: the world will require you to do three times as much to succeed if you don’t fit the mould in terms of behaviour or background; it’ll jump from love to hate and doubt your words at every opportunity. But when it drags you so much, you’ll learn to get up and fight – there’s nothing else for you to do otherwise, so you might as well.

The incredible ice skating sequences that serve us a head-spinning experience are also a delight to watch. Complete with the slow motion and close-ups, they’re a showcase of the sportswoman’s talent as well as her emotional struggle. The only place that makes Tonya happy is the ice rink, and although she inevitably puts on a mask before the showdown, there’s so much rebellion in her music picks, brash attitude and dress choices that the choreographies become another opportunity to learn something new about the character. She’s a total opposite of what we usually imagine a figure skater to be, and she plainly refuses to conform to conventions. And her love-hate relationship with the sport is additionally fuelled with her ego: “I’m a big story on my own when I skate,” she says, snubbing her competitors and judges, and scoffing at a club she struggled to be a part of.

There’s more to Tonya’s flaws, however. Even if the responsibility for the events is thrust upon her continuously, she doesn’t want to own any part of her story besides the success, which provides an interesting moral dilemma for the audience. While we feel sorry for her, the film doesn’t allow us to forget that she has trouble controlling herself and fails to acknowledge it. Robbie nails Tonya’s hate-fuelled rage, blank stares and lack of empathy as well as teary-eyed, distraught glare before the contest, depicting the different faces of conflicted heroine. She flips the borderline switch with great conviction and ease, showering us with emotions and leaving us in doubt. Ultimately, she makes us wonder: do protagonist’s flaws overweigh her work ethic and unfortunate circumstances? The film doesn’t apologise for anything or rehabilitate Tonya, but lays the facts bare and leaves this question for us to answer. And the character doesn’t make the final decision easier when she breaks the fourth wall and accuses the audience of being a part of her misery. Well, didn’t we laugh along the way?

The mother-daughter connection and its influence on Tonya’s career, as well as her future relationships, is profoundly marked by Allison Janney’s performance. Although her Lavona is mostly one-dimensional – we don’t see beyond her cruelty and the film doesn’t encourage us to do so – it helps in understanding how the attitude of the ice skater shaped in the first place, and serves the protagonist’s characterisation, even if the predestination for certain actions is also heavily highlighted. Janney manages to take an utterly unlikeable personality and squeeze chuckles out of her, although soon we realise that it’s too easy to feel guilty for laughing at the lunatic ride Robbie and Janney present us with.

Similarly, we don’t find solace in her relationship with Jeff (powerfully portrayed by Sebastian Stan). Searching for love and admiration, Tonya steps into the relationship with a whole lot of naivety and no healthy examples to follow. The desire and need for acceptance the couple build upon, however, vanishes quickly. Behind the closed doors, bottles smash on the walls, houseware is shattered, punches are thrown before Tonya grabs a rifle and shoots off a cupboard door. She leaves her short-fused husband time after time, but she always lets him back in, sometimes because she’s simply helpless: when Jeff storms into her house with a gun and shoots her, she’s forced to get into his car, and even a police pursuit doesn’t liberate her from this vicious circle of abuse. And it becomes even a tougher choice when it turns out that the image of her personal life impacts her ratings on ice. It’s an unconventional account of domestic violence: very often people assume a victim to be meek and silent. If they aren’t, they presume nothing’s wrong – wouldn’t a strong woman save herself from that situation, doing a reasonable thing to break the cycle? The movie pledges to rethink this stereotype: Tonya is a complete opposite, but thanks to the complex study of the influences of her environment on her life and perception of herself, we’re forced to look under the surface. These events, however, solidify one of the main undertones of the narrative: the sport is the only thing that matters for Tonya, and she’d sacrifice her own sanity to get the admiration through the discipline she practised her entire life.

Focusing all his effort on characterising the protagonist, Gillespie creates an enjoyable and often terrifying medley of conflicting stories and allows the audience to make up their mind about the heroine. But it’s not only about the infamous ice skater’s biography: with an interestingly collated structure, the director manages to include a handful of observations about the celebrity world, domestic abuse, and the influence of one’s background on the execution of their dreams.

I, Tonya was screened as a part of Clapham Picturehouse birthday on the 10th of December 2017. It opens in the UK on the 23rd of February 2018.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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