I, Tonya Review
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’m a big wrestling fan.And if you watch wrestling, you’ll know the reason it works is because of the face/heel divide. While this has been played around with a bit over the years, the whole point of wrestling is to root for the clean cut, eat your vitamins and say your prayers good guy ‘face’ against the dastardly evil ‘heel’. And while that’s just a wrestling thing, you can easily apply that divide to ‘real’ sports. There’s definite heroes and villains in sports and I could probably go on about this for a lot longer. Anyway, here’s a film about one of sport’s classic villains Tonya Harding.
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad) has worked hard all of her life to become an Olympic figure skater. However she has to fight against her working class background, domineering mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Help) and abusive husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan, Captain America: Civil War) to make sure she achieves her dreams.
The movie is told through a mockumentary style with the main characters of the film retelling the actions through interviews with all of them shot in 4:3 aspect ratio which is rather cool. And in what is rather refreshing for a biopic, as well as quite funny, the movie admits a lot of it probably isn’t true. Yes, it starts with some text saying this all comes from contradictory, totally true interviews from Tonya and Jeff. I can always appreciate any movie that starts with some sarcasm. But this sort of attitude is what continues throughout the film and gives it a unique edge. Occasionally during one of the crazier moments, one of the characters will turn to the camera and point blank tell you that this didn’t happen. Considering how much of biopics I’ve seen which have turned out to be completely untrue, looking at you tube scene from Darkest Hour, it neuters that complaint and ends up making it a strength. The movie is not a biopic but lots of people telling their most likely false tale and you are along for the ride.
And that creates a lot of energy in the movie. You’ll have Tonya telling us about her childhood and how she was basically abused by her mother. And then her mother will chime in saying it’s not true and that she only did what any mother would do to make sure that their talented child achieved her potential. But then again, any sympathy for this point of view goes instantly when she forced Tonya to keep practicing until she wet herself. But all these different characters piping up over each other is what keeps the pace of this movie pretty quick. Anytime you have a scene which is starting to slow down the movie as a whole, one of the ‘archival’ interviews will appear, tell you that everything is a lie and that what they are about to say is the truth. It stops the movie from becoming too dry and gives you plenty of laughs.
And because the movie is very funny and has this spark to it, it’s far more effective and memorable than if they did this story in a dark and depressing way. Which by the way is a real way this movie could have gone considering how sad some of this story is. But because this movie is amusing, it ends up tricking you into caring for someone you probably never thought you’d care about. I wasn’t back there in the 1990s but all the retrospectives I’ve seen about this incident have basically been the one story. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, Paper Towns) was the quintessential American girl who was destined to win gold at the Winter Olympics. However her competitor Tonya Harding was jealous and came from a dodgy background so she hired a gangster to break her knees so she can win gold. However Kerrigan battled back and won silver while Harding ended up being lost in the pack. It’s a classic tabloid sport tale where there is a clearly defined hero and villain like has been a lot before. In 1998 David Beckham was blamed for all our World Cup woes and later a winking Cristiano Ronaldo became enemy number one. And they say we can’t get worked anymore.
But what this movie does is make you feel sorry for the villain despite years of us being told we should hate Tonya. Whether you were around for the initial scandal or have just heard about it since, you disliked Tonya Harding. Yes she was talented, but you felt like she was a cheater and a thug because of what happened to Nancy. But this movie manages to make you root for the woman whose been the villain for most of her life. Because of all she has had to deal with in her life from her husband, mother and even coaches, you are desperate for her to do well. Even when the trial happens and she is banned from ice skating forever, you feel like an injustice has been done. Yes, you may have cheered when it happened in the 1990s but this movie will make it seem like a cruel blow against a fragile girl who just wanted to skate.
So does this movie have any problems? There are not many. I think if you can accuse this film of anything it is that it maybe should knuckle down and be more serious at times. There are a lot of serious things in this movie and you can easily accuse the movie of being too light and funny on some things. At one particular point Jeff smahes Tonya’s head into a mirror. It is a startling moment because this sort of violence is not usually shown in such force. But Tonya does an aside to the camera and then the movie continues and pretty much forgets about it. You will barely remember that Jeff was a domestic abuser in that movie and while it doesn’t drag the film down as a whole, this is something that will bother plenty of people.
Despite that, I, Tonya is a very unique way on taking on one of sports most hated villains. It takes on a person who has been so widely hated and mocked for her actions and makes you feel sympathetic for her without you realising that’s exactly what they are doing. Unlike a lot of biopics, taking a more irrelevant tone does help it because you don’t clock on to the fact it’s changing your mind about someone you probably disliked beforehand even if sometimes it should be a bit more serious. There’s a lot to like about it, so much so that I couldn’t even fit in praise for Margot Robbie and Allison Janney for their great performances. A full set of sixes from me. Oh wait, they don’t use that scoring system anyway. Whatever the best mark is anyway.