(Directed by Craig Gillespie) (2017)
We laughed more than cried. Low comedy is more the order of the day here, rather than the high drama of the Great American Will to Win. Doubt is cast on Tonya Harding’s complicity in the cynical assault on her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leading-up to the 1994 Olympic Games. Two borderline mental defectives drove to Kerrigan’s training rink, and while one waited with the motor running, the other gained access to Kerrigan and smashed her knee in (an act of bastardy to which these film-makers seem strangely dispassionate). OK, it wasn’t quite a Texas Mum exterminating her daughter’s co-cheerleaders, but still.
It’s all about Tonya, unreliably recounted in cinéma vérité style by Tonya (a terrific Margot Robbie), her mother La Vona (Allison Janney, see below), her quick-with-his-fists hubby (Sebastian Stan) and various marginal types who populate Tonya’s trailer-park world. Cigarettes (good for the skater’s figure), cheap bars, bad hand-made clothes, waitress jobs, toxic friends, pick-up trucks and shotguns abound. Harding’s Mum pays a rinkside lout to heckle some motivation into Tonya; Husband Jeff pays $1,000 to friend, ‘bodyguard,’ and certified idiot, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) to engage in a little psychological warfare with the Kerrigan camp. Whether Tonya and Jeff knew that the psychological was going to stray to the physical (threatening letters transmogrify to bashing) is left up in the air, doubtless prudently from a legal point of view. Viewers will either drink-up the version that paints Harding as an innocent, unknowing victim; or they will suspect her as another Henry II, needing to do penance.
The stand-outs are Robbie and Janney as the protagonist and her tough love = no love Mom. Janney must have felt like Dustin Hoffman handed the part of Ratso Rizzo: “I mean…there is so much you can do with a part like that.” The great thing about her performance is to do less, and let her wintry soul shine. Pitiless towards Tonya, everyone around Tonya, and even herself (P would like her on the coaching panel of the Glenelg Football Club), hers is a stunning turn as a deeply damaged woman who will always let you down. Robbie (well-prepared for playing a pikey from her time on Home and Away) persuades you, almost, of Harding’s artless moxie and makes a stout attempt to tone-down the glamour. And her skating scenes are very impressive, at least to this amateur, who never saw Ice Castles but has seen Blades of Glory.
In some ways, I, Tonya harkens back to Five Easy Pieces and Six Degrees of Separation in that it tries to say something about class in America, a largely forsworn topic. (Tonya has to sew her own sequins; Nancy is an Eastern grandee who sulks at winning silver.) On that point, we would have appreciated a little less Tonya (she has too many scenes; where those shears and blue pencil?) and a bit more Kerrigan, in order to appreciate the magnitude of the fallout from the squalid affair. After all, doesn’t having your skating legs trimmed to effectively one and still finishing second deserve a bit of screen time? And the tightly-edited first half unravels somewhat by the time Tonya appears to be in the ascendant, selecting more tasteful costumes and music for her routines. In the end, the film runs out of puff; having performed its triple-Axel, it meanders off the ice and towards the exit.