In one of the most compelling scenes of “I, Tonya,” Margot Robbie looks directly into the camera, trying (and failing) to smile genuinely, over and over again. There’s a smudge of dark lipstick on her front tooth, and she rubs bronzer onto her cheeks as the tears that had been brimming in her eyes finally spill over. With her stunning performance, Robbie brought the infamous figure skater’s vulnerability and lifelong abuse to life in Craig Gillespie’s biopic.
Tonya Harding was the first figure skater ever to land the triple axel — an incredibly difficult skill, and one that she relished accomplishing. When she landed it for the first time in 1991, her life changed. The milestone marked a turning point in the film; her fame skyrocketed as her marriage simultaneously plummeted. Abuse was prevalent in both of her most intimate relationships — with her mother and with her husband — and so the tone of the film is tinged with darkness, but the sheer amount of abuse that Harding suffered felt like it deserved more brevity. She had been both physically and verbally abused by her mother while growing up, so it wasn’t all too surprising when her marriage descended into the same realm. It was still heartbreaking, though, to watch Harding search for love from any source, and the darkly comedic approach that Gillespie took became questionable at times.
The film took a mockumentary-style approach, with Harding, her husband Jeff Gilooly (portrayed by Sebastian Stan) and Harding’s mother (Allison Janney) — as well as a motley crew of side characters — giving their takes, retrospection on their side. Not one reliable narrator was to be found, but the one most easy to emphasize with is Harding by far. Even as she dodged blame repeatedly, she has a bit of a point; if her life hadn’t been thrown out of sorts by both her mother and husband at varying points, she might have accomplished her dream of medalling at the Olympics.
The film reaches its crux with the Nancy Kerrigan debacle. For those, like myself, who are not familiar with what happened in the lead up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, here’s a quick summary: Kerrigan (Harding’s biggest competition and teammate on the U.S. team) was attacked and left with a broken leg by a man that Gilooly inadvertently hired. Harding eventually pled guilty to impeding the FBI’s investigation of the event, leading to her forced resignation from the United States Figure Skating Association. The actions of her husband and his incredibly stupid friend cost Harding everything, including her skating career. As the events began to unfold, present-day Harding forced the audience to reckon with its own role in the debacle of her life. “It was like being abused all over again. Only by all of you.”
“I, Tonya” opens nationwide on Friday, Dec. 8.
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