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I, Tonya


‘…isn’t a feminist polemic, but a serious-minded black-comedy…’

If Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street didn’t take a split-second of it’s 182 minute running time to consider or sympathise with the many victims involved, at least it credulously tells Jordan Belfort’s story with plenty of macho style. The constant breaking the fourth wall, the winking badinage with the camera, the admiring emphasis on the main’s characters immoral bad-assery, the sentimental soundtrack of hit songs juxtaposed with the thematically dark action; these things have traditionally been elements of mainstream masculine cinema, but Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya subverts all that long before Barbie got there. ‘There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullsh@t. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the f@ck it wants,’ says Tonya, and she’s been proved right ever since.

Tonya Harding’s story is a well-known one; a gifted skater,  as an ingenue, she carried the hopes and dreams of a nation, only to dramatically fall from grace when it was suggested that she’d deliberately sabotaged one of her rivals as part of her own thirst for success. Back in 1994, Harding was big news worldwide, and I, Tonya attempts to give a fairly sympethetic reading of how and why all this happened, starting with her pishy, foul-mouthed, abusive mother (Allison Janney in her element). Harding is protrayed as being surrounded by venal and incompetent men, and domestic violence is something that she’s hoping to escape; she’s been dealt a rough hand by life, and I,Tonya casts her as an unreliable narrator keen to tell her side of a notorious story.

Robbie has a producer credit here, and there’s a few side-swipes that connect firmly to themes later developed in her Barbie movie, specifically the use of Sylvester Stallone as a totem of masculinity; Harding trains in the snow and cheekily confides to the audience the she’s doing it ‘the way Rocky did when he fought the Russian’. Harding is protrayed as willingly and daringly taking on men at their own game, and losing out badly, but we’re invited to admire the strength of her spirit, even if misapplied. There’s also some nice comic back up from the various actors who play the men holding her back; it would be hard to imagine a more motely crew than Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser and Sebastian Stan. Steven Rogers script makes a virtue of deceptiveness, with Harding constantly fudging the accuracy of her own account, but this isn’t a straight bio-pic or just Coen Brothers small-crime whimsy; it’s a cautionary tale, with a vibrant Robbie front and centre.

A film somewhat ahead of its time, and likey to be reassessed as it appears in the rear-view of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, Tonya looks past the specifics of a well-kent story to create a fable about a woman so often tripped up by men that tripping up another woman almost seems like a novelty. I, Tonya isn’t a feminist polemic, but a serious-minded black comedy which makes haunting use of Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger, and features a dazzling ice-dance set to ZZ Top’s hard-rockin’ anthem Sleeping Bag. We see the august judges looking appalled by Harding’s music, but it’s actually an ideal choice to soundtrack a wronged woman kicking back against the hangers-on, manipulators and macho pricks who seek success on the back of her own honest (and potentially dishonest) endevours.



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  1. Excellent film. A bigger jolt to the audience at the time given Tonya had few redeeming characteristics and none of the Rocky-style fairy tale. The ruthlessness of sport was the main takeaway. The fourth wall stuff I felt was overused.

    • Tonya seems to be a piece of work, but an interesting, ambiguous centre for a film like this.

      • It was almost defying the audience to find some redeeming part of her. There was a sexist element too. We would expect a male to be as ruthless, but not a female.

  2. Interesting you mentioned Wolf of Wall Street because I remember watching it in the cinema and thinking… god, this has really copied the structure and style of Goodfellas.

    The protagonist chases riches but is constantly dragged down by the rats who inhabit the world she moves in. She walks the line between glory and the price it costs to achieve it, until she can’t handle it anymore.

    From the way music is used, to the editing patterns, it’s all surprisingly close to a cut & paste job.

    This is what gets me about Margot Robbie as a producer, she’s just shameless about these kind of copy jobs.

    I thought she was great in the role though, really nailed it.

    I can just imagine her chomping a cigar in an exec meeting… it’s goodfellas on ice, chaps… now get to work!

    Oh PS… thought Magnolia used Goodbye Stranger much better too.

    In summary: grump

    • I think we agree that Robbie is deliberately aping the Scorsese style, so whether that’s a steal, a tribute or a subversion is up for grabs. Cinema can make grumps of us all, it covers a wide variety of opinion. But hard to argue that it’s not panning out well for Robbie in the last few years…

  3. Loved this film when it came out.

    The Tonya Harding story fascinated me for a long time (and still does, but there’s been no new information for a long time.) She’s not a sympathetic character (in the film or in real life), and yet there is, as you say, a cautionary tale.

    I also thought that one of the reasons her story fascinated was that it, at its core, a tale of the dark side of the ruthless ambition that is much celebrated, especially in sports.

    ESPN did a 30 for 30 on this, which is one of my favorite documentaries.

    Good show for bringing this one back to light – you’re right on to say it needs to be dusted off and looked at again in the wake of the Barbie phenom.

    • Yup, so I’m giving Robbie some points as a potential ‘author’ of this film, particularly due to the Stallone connections here. The story of Harding was known about here, but not the way it was in the States. She seems like a character, but there also seems to be a case for things not entirely being her own fault. As a film, I liked how it used and flipped tropes of masculine cinema and turned them on their heads; it would make a good double bill for those interested in the darker side of Barbie.

    • I’d be interested in seeing an I Nancy showing the other side of this, but Robbie is great in this role and it’s an easy movie to find right now. Enjoy!

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