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Go figure: America on thin ice in I, Tonya

Margot Robbie stars in ‘darkly comedic tale’ that tells true story of Olympic skating rivals

23 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Margot Robbie in I, Tonya

I, TONYA
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Certificate 15
☆☆☆

IT is hard to know quite how to approach this very well-made story that focuses on the events of 1994 involving two leading American figure skaters.

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were rivals on ice, and as the teams were being selected to compete in the Winter Olympics, Kerrigan was subjected to a vicious attack: Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and fantasist friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) paid two low-rate hoodlums to attack what they saw as her main rival for a place in the US team for the 1994 Winter Olympics. They smashed Kerrigan’s knee, hoping this would give Tonya a better chance of earning a place.

While a fascinating story, director Craig Gillespie has drawn in ideas of America’s class system, the snobbery in the figure skating world, and the bumbling criminals responsible for the incident. It has an element of the Coen Brothers about it – namely odd crimes committed by their idea of Everyman Americans. It could be the relative of The Big Lebowski.

But because it is based on true events, the humour wrung from what is basically an extremely sad story is a little jarring, and takes away from superb performances and a tale well told.

We learn a little of the psychological skulduggery that goes on the competitive world of figure skating – Tonya was told by police they had received death threats as she was about to perform, meaning she had to decide whether to take to the ice in a huge arena. We are also shown in forthright terms that the judges of the discipline thought little of her because of her social class.

Margot Robbie is excellent as Tonya. We are shown that her mum Lavona (Allison Janney, excellent) is as mean as a rattle-snake, and both physically and mentally abuses her daughter – but why she does is brushed over.

We also get only a small glimpse of the trauma you have to go through to be a top athlete – instead, this film focuses on the violent and abusive relationship she was subjected to by both her husband and mother.

Yet somehow the film-makers contrive to make you not feel sorry for her, despite the horrendous situation she was in.

Films with sport at their heart often lose their believability by having ropey re-enactments of game time. Gillespie should be applauded for his clever camera trickery that makes it look very much like Robbie is really twisting through the air.

Above all, this film is really an indictment of American culture – as Tonya says: “Americans want an hero and a villain” – and as the final scene plays out, a TV in the background is running a news story that set in motion the trial of OJ Simpson.

It’s as if the news-hungry audience were done with The Tonya and Nancy Show, and were now moving their ferocious appetite on to the next item.

But by attempting irony, the film almost trips itself up. Called a “darkly comedic tale” by its makers, it has little to laugh about.

That humour could be found somewhere within wreaks of snobbery – poking fun at the white trash – or just plain mean.

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