Thanks to Odeon’s Screen Unseen, I was able to get my hands on an early viewing for Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, the electrifying biopic based on the controversial life of American figure-skating icon Tonya Harding.
Pitching the idea of a biopic about such a controversial figure in a sport that boasts a catalogue of well-mannered, sophisticated athletes might seem a tad ambitious for the relatively inexperienced Gillespie, but it is a project that is brimming with endless potential. Thankfully, this potential is fulfilled, with Gillespie bringing to the screen an endearing, hilarious and heart-wrenching story of one woman’s rise to fame and her immediate decline into criminal notoriety.
What seems to be a perfect casting decision, the woman in question is portrayed by the increasingly impressive Margot Robbie, an actor that matches the overwhelming charisma and energy of Tonya Harding to emphatic levels. First introduced in her kitchen clouded with cigarette smoke and weary eyes, Robbie’s Harding seems defeated, and right off the bat, there is an edge to Gillespie’s film; a quick-witted anecdote from the lead that spirals into its non-linear narrative. There is a certain documentarian feel to the film, a series of interviews that are seamlessly intertwined with the dramatic plot that is on full display – an achievement that must be accredited to the wonderful work of editor Tatiana S. Riegel.
Tonya Harding’s defeat is one that is the result of her continuous battle with herself and those around her throughout her entire life, a nuance that is brought to life through Robbie’s ability to balance the tragedy and humour from Harding’s life into her own performance. This is by far Robbie’s most mature outing yet, a performance that presents a chameleon-like resemblance to her subject, both physically and internally. Yes, she looks the part, but she also embodies Harding in a way that perfectly captures her everyday struggle against those that are meant to support her, and against the system that is intentionally trying to tarnish her reputation. Harding is not the perfect role model, but what she lacks in social etiquette she makes up for in grit, perseverance and unflinching charisma, traits so wonderfully exhibited through Robbie’s nuanced performance.
Similarly, Allison Janney is terrific as LaVona Golden, the hard-headed mother of Tonya (whom also strikes a remarkable resemblance to Dot Cotton. If you know, you know.) Janney’s performance is one that is comprised of explosive, explicit dialogue and shocking, un-motherly behaviour, yet there is not a moment when she’s on-screen that she is at all unlikeable. Her interactions with co-star Robbie scream authenticity, a relationship that is both dysfunctional and completely plausible. There is undeniable chemistry between the two actors, which results in an electrifying companionship between mother and daughter, and fully deserving of their Oscar nominations for the forthcoming Academy Awards.
Gillespie manages to find a complementary balance between comedy and drama in a way that blows fresh air into the lungs of the biopic genre. The blending of fourth-wall-breaking narration and expertly choreographed figure-skating sequences (despite the noticeable post-production brush-ups here and there) helps to create a cinematic experience that feels both fresh and wacky, but not to the extent that it undermines the sincerity of the themes that Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers aim to address. This sense of balanced humour and solemnity epitomises the nature of Tonya Harding’s conflicting lifestyle, yet it is Gillespie’s handling of the truth, or the lack thereof, that is most interesting. He provides no sense of authority in his film and challenges the viewer to question the authenticity of the tales that his characters tell directly to the camera, which rings true to the ambiguity surrounding the actions of Tonya Harding’s life, particularly the shocking attack of fellow figure-skating icon Nancy Kerrigan.
I, Tonya is a stylish, exhilarating biopic that boasts a duo of terrific performances that help to shake the branches of the genre it finds itself in.