Movie Review: I, Tonya

It is almost 24 years to the day that the most notorious scandal to rock the skating world took place. At the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, someone whacked star skater Nancy Kerrigan just above the knee with a telescopic baton as she stepped off the ice following a practice session. It didn’t take long for the police to pick up Shane Stant for the attack and, once in custody, Stant sang like a canary. He revealed that he was hired by Tonya Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding, who was Kerrigan’s teammate at the time, was among the sport’s best figure skaters. She won the US Championship in 1991 and took home the silver medal at the World Championship just one month later. (American Kristi Yamaguchi, by the way, won the latter event with Kerrigan copping the bronze.) Even though she was the first woman to have landed two triple axels in a single competition as well as holding a few others “firsts”, she never received the acclaim she felt she deserved because, as she saw it, she didn’t fit the wholesome image of being America’s sweetheart on ice. Gillooly wanted to change that and he saw the Detroit event as his last chance to do so. His idea was to intimidate Kerrigan so that she would be off her game, thus giving Harding clear passage onto the US Olympic team and a ticket to the Winter Olympics that year in Lillehammer. Eckhardt, however, decided to take the plan to a more diabolical level resulting in the whack heard around the world. All along Harding has said she wasn’t aware of the plan but she did admit to conspiring to hinder the investigation. (Just last week, however, on January 11, 2018, Harding admitted that she, in fact, did know something about the attack before it took place.) Because of that, she was banned for life from US Figure Skating Association-run events either as a skater or a coach.

Harding’s life, from her early years on the ice to her court sentencing and even to her life afterward, is covered in the amusing and often head-shakingly incredible biopic, I, TONYA. Starring and produced by Australian actress Margot Robbie (THE LEGEND OF TARZAN; THE BIG SHORT), we first meet Tonya when she’s just three years old. Her acerbic (dare I say even toxic?) mother, LaVona “Sandy” Golden (wonderfully played by Allison Janney, SPY; TV’s THE WEST WING), recognises her daughter’s bank account potential and she thrusts Tonya into a figure skating class for older children. Tonya, however, shines and she starts winning prize after prize for her ability. But Tonya’s life off the ice is not an easy one. Her mother regularly verbally and physically abuses her and, at the age of 19, she marries Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, LOGAN LUCKY; CAPTAIN AMERICA franchise), who also beats her up on a regular basis. On the ice, Tonya finds it equally hard-going. Sewing her own often tacky costumes and preferring to set her skating routines to hard rock music instead of more traditional fare like Ravel or Tchaikovsky, Harding feels the skating judges never give her a fair shake, marking her scores down, which often mean second, third or even lower place standings. With the 1994 Winter Olympics as her last chance not just for figure skating immortality but for product endorsements and a professional career on the ice, Gillooly, who is now divorced from Harding, decides to give her a bit of an edge. The only problem is that he and Eckhardt are not the smartest kids in the class. The rest, as they say, is history.

This may be Robbie’s best effort yet as she throws herself into this tragic character who has been the subject of countless jokes, references and parodies over the years. Although Robbie had been on an amateur ice hockey team, she still spent five months training for the skating scenes. It’s been widely reported that all the leaps, toes and turns that we see on the screen are Robbie’s – except for one, the triple axel. There are only a handful of woman who can perform it today and two of them are currently training for the Winter Olympics in Pyongchang. Needless to say, neither of them wanted to risk their chance for a medal on a movie. As a result, Australian director Craig Gillespie (MILLION DOLLAR ARM) employed CGI to make it look like Robbie was performing the feat. Screenwriter Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU) wisely tells the story from multiple perspectives. Harding, Gillooly, Golden, Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, TV’s KINGDOM), skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY) and Martin Maddox (Bobby Canavale, SPY; CHEF), the latter being a fictitious character from TV’s HARD COPY, are all filmed documentary-style to give their take on certain events. Not surprisingly, there are conflicting versions throughout and Gillespie amusingly often plays out both versions for the audience to decide for themselves which one is true.

As much as I enjoyed the film and learning about Harding’s backstory, I did have a problem with the basic thesis that she is as much a victim as Nancy Kerrigan is. Certainly, with Harding’s big admission last week, she’s going to lose many of the fans who have rallied around her since this film came out. Yes, she had a lousy family life but is she a victim? Definitely go see this film and decide for yourself.

Expect Allison Janney, who has already won a Golden Globe for her role here, to take home an Oscar too.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, January 18th at 8:30 am HK time!

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