I, Tonya is a stylish reinvention of Harding’s life, portrayed by Margo Robbie, and the tabloid theatrics surrounding the events of the 1994 Olympic Figure Skating Championship.
Director Craig Gillespie, working off the well-paced script of Steven Rogers, cultivates our sympathies for Harding in this quasi-biopic by using a framework of abusive relationships, epitomized by an amazing performance from Allison Janney as her sociopathic mother and Harding’s boyfriend played by Sebastian Stan.
This quirky film is about a dysfunctional family and Harding’s inability to emotionally or physically shield herself from its toxicity. Instead, she drinks the Koolaid and spits it back in their respective faces, smiling defiantly, fists raised. It is not surprising how our time with Harding ends in the film.
More surprising was Margot Robbie’s performance, as chiseled as the sound of Harding’s skates on the ice, as driving and defiant as the music of her performances. Robbie is excellent, finally landing a role with some knuckle to it.
Robbie’s previous exploits, including a role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio as his wife, Naomi Lapaglia, in Scorcese’s amazing Wolf of Wall Street, as well as the insane, porcelain companion to the Joker, Harley Quinn, in the Suicide Squad film, lacked the independence from a male counterpart to offer Robbie the tooth she needed to express her acting chops. I, Tonya presents that opportunity to Robbie, gift-wrapped in smeared lipstick and bruised flesh to the theme from Jurassic Park — it is a striking vision of the woman behind such controversy.
Craig Gillespie’s vision for the film is composed by cinematographer, Nicolas Karakatsanis, whose work is a gift to the film. The two clearly work well together, adeptly crafting the visual architecture of Harding’s various performances on the ice. If figure skating were directed in the same handsome fashion as it is carved into this film, I would be a fan. The camera is practically a character as it glides across the ice, accompanied by the grating sound design of Harding’s skates gouging into the ice.
Unfortunately, certain directorial decisions land awkwardly. For instance, Gillespie shifts the tone significantly when Harding’s incensed boyfriend smashes her head against the hallway drywall, breaking the fourth wall with Robbie folding the poignant scene into a narration directly to the audience. It is a clever way to engage with the audience, destroying two walls with one narrative mechanism, but this creates an almost tongue-in-cheek tone to an otherwise dramatic scene.
This is a post-modern, narrative device often used in Marvel films called ‘bathos’, short-circuiting the dramatic impact of a scene with humor. In this case, though, it is an uncomfortable reshaping of the most impactful theme of the film: domestic abuse. It serves as an interesting experiment in narrative but resolves itself in the same sense as fashioning your own clothes for professional competition: questionable design.
I, Tonya illustrates a technical acumen in storytelling that is welcome in any film, even if the story tries a little too hard to victimize Harding’s story. While a few tonal missteps give the film a bit of a black eye, the execution of the film, the characters, and its accompanying structure are smart and stylish.