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FILM REVIEW: I, Tonya, biopic of the figure skater the world loved to hate

I Tonya

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I, Tonya (15)
Running time 2hr
Rating: ****

EVER heard the one about the world-class figure skater who got wrapped up in a botched scheme to physically immobilise a rival, briefly earning her the dubious distinction of being America’s Most Hated Woman? The Tonya Harding case makes for bizarre, unpleasant reading; the tabloid firestorm that followed the 1994 assault on Nancy Kerrigan (a crime that investigators would ultimately trace back to Harding’s thuggish husband) would prove a prelude to 2018’s garish social media culture, with its unending parade of Emmanuel Goldsteins – some infinitely more deserving of our scorn than others, of course, but all forgotten within the space of a month.

This critic can’t help but feel that director Craig Gillespie dredged up this sordid Clinton-era curio with an eye to riffing on said strain of postmodern amnesia, yet I, Tonya goes rapidly off the rails in the best possible sense of term. It’s a picture every bit as lurid and excruciating as the affair at its centre, yet replete with savage comedy and featuring an extraordinary turn by Margot Robbie in the title role. It does for ice-skating what The Wolf of Wall Street did for Wall Street (right down to its dependence on ‘humorous’ asides and jarring narration – “yes, this is STILL a true story”); as in Scorsese’s 2013 filthbuster, I’m uncertain as to how we’re supposed to digest the (superficially odious) subject matter, and that’s due in no small part to the film’s creative treatment of its protagonist and its accomplished (if not flawless) direction.

Somehow, the movie gets away with sparing little thought for Kerrigan (played by Caitlin Carver) and her plight – it’s a disquieting approach, and almost certainly a conscious one, given that I, Tonya spends much of its final act basking in the unmitigated grotesqueness of the situation (in a series of cutaways, an ‘older’ Harding shamelessly reminisces upon the beating). One can’t help but feel that such a self-ironically tasteless set-up has its definite limitations where the true-crime genre is concerned (who can forget Michael Bay’s atrocious Pain & Gain?), but I, Tonya never gets ahead of itself in this regard – it’s a highly-disciplined character study, taking all accusations of bias and erroneousness on its shoulders and leaving the audience with no shortage of thought-food. Harding’s life was dogged by abuse, so we get some unflinching scenes of violence (perpetrated chiefly by her demonic mother, played to ghoulishly splendid effect by Allison Janney). The men in Tonya’s life are the flotsam and jetsam of a lumpen masculinity that’s gone viciously astray in the age of the Sexgate scandal – just watch husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) plot their attack on Nancy with the single-minded diligence of Nixon’s Plumbers or Ray Liotta’s mob boss in Goodfellas. It would make for a preposterous spectacle, if not for the tragic true-life postscript.

Robbie’s performance binds the whole thing together like superglue – it’s an astonishing piece of work, a remarkably physical act for which she has clearly taken pains, and such scenes as a climactic skate unfold like taut, exhausting bank robberies under her watch. This is the sort of tale that always threatens to collapse under the weight of its own absurdities and contradictions (20 years on, all too many unknowns surround the Harding case), but it’s realised, with her aid, as a bleak, compelling and frequently comical cinema, a sports biopic in the vein of a rootin’-tootin’ gangster flick. At its heart is a decidedly terrifying suggestion – that criminals, far from the devious masterminds and coldhearted goons of popular folklore, are, all too often, merely cowards and losers out for a cheap testosterone fix, blundering their way into the next job with little regard for the human cost.
Be afraid.