The Movie Waffler Now on Netflix - I, TONYA | The Movie Waffler

Now on Netflix - I, TONYA

i tonya review
The story of disgraced figure-skater Tonya Harding.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson

i, tonya uk poster

In this social media age, where news cycles fade out within hours of a story being broken, it's easy to forget how culturally pervasive the great scandals of the '90s were. Like the OJ Simpson trial and Bill Clinton's sexual shenanigans, the attack on American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by parties connected with her rival, Tonya Harding, made headlines for months, the world gripped by a story that would likely be forgotten within days today.

I, Tonya chronicles the events leading up to the attack - in which a thug hired by Harding's boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) attempted to smash Kerrigan's knee with a baton, leaving the skater merely bruised but putting her out of action long enough for Harding to take advantage of her absence on the circuit and win a place at the 1994 Winter Olympics - and the resulting fallout.

i, tonya

An opening title card tells us director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers' film is based on "irony free and wildly contradictory" interviews with three key figures - Harding, Gillooly and Harding's foul-mouthed, tough as nails mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Gillespie intercuts static recreations of these interviews with his main narrative, a hyper-real account of the story that plays like a manic combination of backstage musical and true crime drama, the cast delivering often hilarious asides to camera, contradicting each other's stories, and in one of the movie's funniest moments, moaning about their lack of screen time.

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At this time of year we're usually flooded with biopics of 'important' and 'worthy' figures, so it's a relief to see a movie that revels in the bad reputation of its subject, and doesn't take its story too seriously. Biopics are rarely entertaining, but I, Tonya is a riotously amusing look at the dark side of American exceptionalism, delivered with the wit and style of a '90s Simpsons episode.

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Robbie is magnificent as the disgraced skater, losing herself so much in the character that it's a little scary whenever she stares back at the audience, equating us with the public that so famously turned on her. There aren't many performers who can pull off the feat of being both a movie star and a genuinely gifted actor, but Robbie's work here suggests she may be the new DiCaprio. She even overshadows a brilliant Janney in the more showy role of her abrasive, over-demanding mother, who comes close at times to going full Mommy Dearest and breaking out the coat-hangers. It's the relatively unknown Paul Walter Hauser, channelling the spirit of John Candy, who gets the film's most memorable moments as Harding's delusional brother-in-law, who by this account at least, is the key figure responsible for the whole debacle.

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While delivering a handful of acting tour-de-forces, I, Tonya boasts the best work of Gillespie's spotty directorial career. After breaking out with indie dramedy Lars and the Real Girl 10 years ago, the Aussie director found himself joining the ranks of Hollywood's journeymen, but with I, Tonya he asserts himself in striking fashion. Visually, he pulls off some fantastic sequences here, none more so than an early skating routine that establishes Harding's undoubted talent, his camera dancing around Robbie in a seductive, Minnelli-esque manner that suggests he should be helming musicals.

i, tonya

The real achievement of Gillespie's film is in humanising a woman whose name has become shorthand for cheating and entitlement. While Harding is essayed by Robbie as a rugged, unapologetic badass, the film makes it clear where her rage stems from, highlighting the class prejudice at the heart of the skating world, whose authorities didn't want their sport represented by 'white trash'. In spite of herself, we grow to love Harding, making her ultimate comeuppance close to unbearable to watch. Whether Harding deserves such sympathy makes for a perfect post-screening debate.

I, Tonya is on Netflix UK now.