Robbie gives a perfect performance as the disgraced US figure skater Tonya Harding in this ferociously entertaining biopic.
Like the jaw-dropping triple-axel jump that made champion figure skater Tonya Harding famous, Margot Robbie’s performance in this satirical, postmodern tale of the disgraced star is a tour-de-force tornado that balances finely nuanced character development with impressively punchy physicality. Starring in a passion-project that she also produced, Robbie never puts a foot wrong as the proud Portland outsider (“Trashy Tonya doesn’t belong”) who outperformed her more privileged competitors, only to see her career implode after being implicated in a violent assault on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.
Like the media frenzy that surrounded those infamous events, Craig Gillespie’s darkly comic film (from a sharp Steven Rogers script) filters its story through a prism of conflicting narratives that clash like blades on broken ice. The result resembles an adrenalised mashup of To Die For and Blades of Glory, with the stylish zing of American Hustle and a hint of the bruising domestic violence of Raging Bull.
We first meet Harding as a plucky kid whose mother hits her with hands, hairbrushes and knives (“Oh please,” sneers Allison Janney’s chain-smoking LaVona, “show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs!”). Later, Harding becomes a battered wife whose husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), thinks the best way to demonstrate his love is through death threats. Throughout, I, Tonya paints its subject as “a real person who never apologised for growing up poor and being a redneck – which is what I am”. A tough cookie in a sport full of little princesses, Harding makes her mark through extreme physical feats that few others would dare to attempt. But when Jeff and his fantasist-idiot sidekick, Shawn (a brilliant tragicomic turn from Paul Walter Hauser), decide to take competitive matters into their own hands, the result is as chaotic as it is catastrophic.
Announcing itself as “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”, I, Tonya allows its key characters to speak directly to the audience, whether through faux interviews that reproduce the boxy frames of TV reportage, or through fourth-wall breaks during the fluid widescreen action. “This is bullshit, I never did this!” says Robbie’s Tonya as she sees off her abusive husband with a shotgun, only for Jeff to take pot-shots at her (“That’s not me,” he insists) to the strains of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.
At times I was reminded of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, another furiously entertaining portrait of unreliable pop narratives. Later, as Harding puts herself through a Rocky-style boot camp – tossing logs and lugging huge bags of dog food through the woods – coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) turns to the camera and says: “She actually did this.” As for who did what in relation to the assault on Kerrigan, the film makes its sympathies clear while inviting audiences to decide for themselves what actually happened.
Lending a propulsive edge to these kaleidoscopic stories are the ice-skating scenes, which are orchestrated like high-octane action sequences. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis and ice-skating camera operator Dana Morris conjure gliding images that evoke the in-your-face force of Harding’s routines, closer in tone to the crunchy musical car chases of Baby Driver than to any ice-ballet escapades. As for Robbie, every time she steps into the arena, she seems to be channelling James Caan’s gladiatorial Jonathan E from Rollerball.
A soundtrack of smartly chosen tunes keeps the pace popping, from the cheeky use of Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman when LaVona first sets the three-and-a-half-year-old Harding (“she’s a soft four”) in pursuit of Rawlinson’s attention, to the brilliant use of Joanie Sommers’s Little Girl Bad as Tonya earns her “fuck you” moment and lands the triple axel.
Amid the fallout of “the incident” that defined Harding’s villainous legacy (“It’s what you all came for, folks”), Rogers’s screenplay ensures that we never lose sight of her status as a survivor, someone seeking love and adoration in a world full of aggression, who habitually finds herself on the wrong end of a fist. It’s no surprise that Harding (who later took up boxing) became a “totally American” folk icon, her story inspiring documentaries, dramas, a musical, even a rock opera. “People either love Tonya or they’re not big fans,” says Rawlinson, “just like people either love America or they’re not big fans.” Whatever your views on the US in general and Harding in particular, you’ll leave this cheering for Margot Robbie. Bravo!
Mark Kermode , Guardian