I, TONYA, US, 2017. Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastien Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, BojanaNovakovic, Caitlin Carver, Maizie Smith, Mckenna Grace. Directed by Craig Gillespie. 120 minutes. Rated MA (Strong coarse language and sex scene).
This is a strongly autobiographical title. And the Tonya is champion ice skater, Tonya Harding – who, in the 1990s, was known as a determined competitor and who was responsible for paying injury to her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan. With this film, this aspect of the reputation will happen all over again.
With the I in the title, Tonya is telling her own story, and she does it straight to camera, sitting in her kitchen in later years, confiding in the audience, reminiscing, becoming angry, and always insisting that anything that happened to her was not her fault. At other times, during the film, she will also turn to camera tell us all about it.
In fact, other characters also talk to camera. The main person in her life was her mother, an embittered woman, taking out her angers on her daughter, living through her daughter and her skating talent but always undermining, often physically violent, badmouthing her daughter. Allison Janney, whom audiences have admired for decades, notably for her performance in the television series, The West Wing, has already won the Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress and the same award from the Screen Actors Guild. It is an extraordinarily intense portrait of a monstrous woman, absorbed in herself, seeing everything in connection with herself, but also absorbed, up close or at a distance, with her daughter. It is a performance worth watching.
But also, well worth watching, is the performance of Margot Robbie as Tonya. Two talented little girls portray her when she was small, determined, and outskilling girls at her skating who are older. She tells us that she always loved skating, that she knew nothing else, that this was her life. Margot Robbie has to portray Tonya as a teenager, as a young adult, the crisis in her life and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan coming when she was only 23. Margot Robbie embodies Tonya, as a character, as a redneck, which she claims she is, as a moody young woman, and as a competitive performer, Margot Robbie doing a great deal of the skating herself.
The other person in Tonya’s life was Jeff Gilhooly. He is played here by Sebastian Stan, another strong performance, a friendly young man, in a relationship with the teenage Tonya, ambitious for her, but also prone to irrational and violent outbursts. This is a tempestuous relationship, a fierce example of domestic violence. And her mother continually declares she never liked him.
Jeff Gilhooly has a friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), a large and oafish young man, not too many brains to bless himself with, who acts as Tonya’s bodyguard and is the brains (or lack of brains) in going beyond Jeff Gilhooly’s aim to frighten Nancy Kerrigan but employing an ignorant friend who bashes the skater’s knee.
The action after the event of the bashing reveals Jeff Is Becoming more and more desperate, the police investigation, Shawn’s ignorant denials, the arrest of the actual basher, Shawn setting up Jeff at midnight at a diner to get him to confess… It is hard to tell how much Tonya actually knew or discovered after the event. Nevertheless, she perseveres in competitive skating, preparing for the 1992 Winter Olympics, making impression with her skills, though always alienating the team of judges by her personality, by her presentation, by her attitudes.
Comes the moment at the Olympics…
In the epilogue to the film, it is revealed that Tonya became a boxer, another violent sport. A postscript indicates that she has settled down somewhat and, in fact, accompanied Margot Robbie to the Golden globes.
The credits images are worth seeing, impressive scenes of the actual Tonya Harding and her skating – and a glimpse her actual mother looking exactly the way Allison Janney portrays her in the film
A slice of American life – with many bitter tastes.
Roadshow Released January 25th
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.