I, Tonya is a very clever, gripping film that concerns itself, above all, with the notion of truth. In the film’s final act, Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding proclaims that “there’s no such thing as truth – everyone has their own truth”, which certainly is itself the truth about this 24-years-on biopic of the tragic skating figure.
The film continually bounces from the infamous past to present-day “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly [Harding’s husband at the time]”, as an opening title card announces before cannoning us into the mayhem. It’s these interviews which guide, and even permeate, the plot, as these two lead characters keep breaking the fourth wall, often during intense moments, to give testimony that the events we are being shown either did, or did not, happen. Despite this potentially distracting technique, the audience is consistently kept on the side of Harding, a sympathy which is due to one person in particular: its star, Margot Robbie.
Margot Robbie gives an absolutely stunning performance, climaxing at her 1994 Olympics skate where the sheer violence of conflicting emotion in her face becomes the defining image of the film, and probably merits an Academy Award on its own. The film is, of course, a timely release, concurrent with this year’s Winter Olympics; though Robbie’s skating routines are filmed very differently to how we’re used to seeing them on TV. The camera whirls around her as she pulls off moves that most actors, never mind mere mortals, wouldn’t dream of. It very much brings us into the action, and we aren’t viewing as spectators in the way that another recent sporting biopic, Battle of the Sexes, elects to present its climactic tennis match (not to knock an equally fabulous film, in this writer’s opinion). Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser also give very convincing performances as pathetic, snivelling man-babies who lead Harding to believe that you can never trust a man (“or anyone”) and affirm the grit-tooth determination and independence she has to show for the film’s duration, and Allison Janney’s portrayal of Harding’s mother is the primary element which arguably gives the film a ‘black comedy’ label, and her Best Supporting Actress BAFTA is well-deserved. However, it’s Margot Robbie who rightly steals the show, in what’s probably the standout performance of her career so far.