Tonya Harding, the former US figure skater, is best known for her association with one of sport’s most infamous moments. In the build-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s rival, was injured in a vicious assault. It turned out Harding’s husband at the time organised the attack. After Harding took part in, and finished eighth, in the Games, she pled guilty to hindering the prosecution and was banned from figure skating for life (Kerrigan, incidentally, recovered from her injuries and made it to the Olympics, winning a silver medal).
I, Tonya pieces togethers this lurid tale, with director Craig Gillespie adding a mockumentary framing and Margot Robbie playing the gifted, utterly determined skater. Harding might be a deeply reviled figure, but Robbie brings depth, eccentricity and humanity to this version of her. At one point, as Tonya talks to camera about her husband she seems to shrink in front of our eyes.The magnificent Allison Janney takes on the role of her mother, who starts off an encouraging, if erratic mentor, before morphing into a monster.
This is, in the end, a tragic story but I, Tonya recounts it with great pep, colourful language and superb comic timing. Those who might be squeamish at the sight of a dead bunny may want to avoid it, but if you do you’ll miss the wonderful sight of an American (Janney) liberally using the c-word with the punchiness of an angry Scot.
Where the characters are at their most idiotic, they are revealed to be directly quoting their real-life counterparts, who are featured in the credits. Stay for those: there is also the real footage of Tonya becoming the first female American skater to land a triple axel in competition. It’s on YouTube and worth watching in full (it may even bring a tear to the eye). The film cannot quite restage such grace on the ice, but because it’s more sophisticated than an average sports biopic, it doesn’t depend on doing so.
Unlike other awards-bait biopics, I, Tonya, which has three Oscar nominations, is fun to watch. Yet it doesn’t skimp on serious ideas: that femininity can be a straitjacket which can hold a working class girl back (‘Why can’t it just be about the skating?’ Tonya asks one judge) and that the media and its consumers were complicit in her downfall (‘You are all my attackers’). Often stories put characters into neat categories: victims and perpetrators, privileged and disadvantaged, liars and truth-tellers, but I, Tonya understands how inconsistent and complicated people’s lives can be.