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I, Tonya review - Margot Robbie skates to success in this brutal biopic

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Margot Robbie skates to success in this surprisingly brutal film depicting the life of champion figure-skater Tonya Harding.

The thing that’s emphasised right at the start and again throughout the film, is that this isn’t an attempt at finding the truth behind who really was in on the assault of Nancy Kerrigan — a competitor of Harding’s — during training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. This film isn’t concerned with definite truth at all, but rather with the mutability of it. Stories, different perspectives, and varying motives define the narrative presented to the audience.

The film opens and is littered with interviews with the characters involved, 20 years after the incident itself. Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her mother LaVonna, played with glorious attitude by Allison Janney, all look directly into the camera and comment on the events we are shown. 

Their opinions, their different versions, all colour how the audience sees what comes next. As different interviewees are given the spotlight at various moments, we are let in for a minute to how that character viewed the situation 20 years prior, and how they thought and felt. A lot of that is conveyed through what is said, but more is conveyed through what is left unsaid, or brushed over. It’s an incredibly sophisticated method of storytelling that manages to implicate everyone except Tonya herself. 

She is undoubtedly the heroine of this twisted tale: the poor, improper, but talented girl who was abused and discriminated against by judges all her life, including the judge who sentences her after the incident itself. Her allegations of abuse against both her mother and her husband are brushed off by both parties in characteristic ways.

Robbie is an absolute tour-de-force, effortlessly balancing the fire and fury of Harding with her youth and vulnerability. Only through her performance is it made believable that despite leaving him and filing multiple restraining orders against him, Harding continually forgave and took back Gillooly. Her self-image as a victim, hammered into her by her mother from such a young age, plagues the path of her life in such a real, raw way.

Covering bruises with make-up symbolises that whole struggle, and is a recurring motif throughout the film, yet it is Robbie’s face as she does so every time that is absolutely flooring.

Stan’s Gillooly is masterfully portrayed as the smooth-talking abuser that can “talk his way out of anything,” including, sometimes, the audience’s condemnation. Harding’s own conflicting feelings towards him colour the portrayal of him — sometimes a perfect sweet boyfriend, and other times a violent, crazed stalker.

Janney is phenomenal in her role as Harding’s emotionally distant, pushy mother. McKenna Grace, playing the young Harding, does a great job at communicating the fraught nature of the relationship between mother and daughter. LaVonna’s callous comments, brutal training regime, and explicit physical abuse are all painful to watch, and are played with relish by Janney.

The film invites its audience to be cynical about the narrative it chooses to pluck out of the “wildly conflicting” stories gleaned through real interviews with the participants. It all seems too neat for Jeff’s friend and Tonya’s supposed bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) to have done what the film alleges he did. The staging and music during the scenes leading up to the attack on Kerrigan are all Hollywood cliches, alerting the audience to the potential falsehoods being dressed up and presented to us in a neatly constructed way.

It would be remiss not to mention the actual figure skating sequences, which truly are both breathtaking, and an unbelievable match to the real footage of Harding’s performances that play with the credits at the end of the film. The intense training that Robbie had to undergo certainly paid off. Full credit, too, to Sarah Kawahara, the former Canadian figure skater who choreographed for the film, and to Robbie’s stunt doubles Anna Malkova and Heidi Munger.

This film is an absolute emotional rollercoaster, a biopic, a detective story, a crime thriller, and a revenge-fuelled exposé all at once. Both Robbie and Janney’s Oscar nominations are well deserved!

I, Tonya is released on Feb 23rd, distributed by EntertainmentOne.

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