Margot Robbie is terrific as the controversial figure skater in Craig Gillespie’s anarchic and stubbornly multi-perspectival biopic.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser
Runtime: 120 mins
Release date: 23 February 2018
The story of Tonya Harding – the figure skating champion who, along with her husband and her bodyguard, was accused of assaulting her rival Nancy Kerrigan – is a tabloid dream. Harding was a controversial figure already, a white trash redneck participating in a sport with a very particular view of femininity; then the investigation and legal proceedings following the assault revealed three separate, contradictory accounts, with the skater, the husband, and the bodyguard pointing their fingers everywhere but themselves. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers have latched onto this epistemological minefield, casting off any semblance of truth to instead create a factual mess based on, as the film puts it, irony free and wildly contradictory interviews.
Margot Robbie plays Harding, and she’s terrific. Harding is abrasive, insecure, arrogant, and vulnerable; a contradictory blend (can you see a pattern here?) that Robbie keeps balanced with expert skill. What is most remarkable about Robbie’s performance is that she is really playing several different versions of Harding. There’s the ostensibly “real” Harding, in recreated interviews and the story’s more intimate moments. Then there’s the tabloid version of Harding, the pugnacious redneck to tells judges to suck her dick. And there’s the overly ambitious abusive wife as recounted by husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who “real” Harding vehemently denies ever existed.
Stan leads a supporting cast that also includes Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, and Paul Walter Hauser. Janney is Harding’s mother, a chain smoking, foul mouthed monster perched behind massive spectacles. Nicholson plays Diane, Harding’s prim, proper, and long suffering coach. The real stand out, in an outstanding supporting cast, is Hauser, who is hilarious as Harding’s bodyguard, an overweight dweeb who claims endlessly to have years of anti-terrorist training when he oh so clearly doesn’t.
Like I said, I, Tonya is based on hugely differing interviews, and Gillespie takes great and exhilarating pains to ensure that we know this probably isn’t what actually happened, just what these people said happened. Gillespie’s camera often zooms in on these characters’ faces, lending the film a chaotic, kinetic energy, but also marks these events as obviously subjective. Characters speak directly to the audience, sometimes going as far as denying they ever did what they are, right now, doing on camera.
These narrative and perspective shenanigans have the effect of distancing us from these people and these events. Some may see this as a problem, but I think it depends on what you want from this kind of film. We have this weird idea that films can be almost perfect reflections of reality, even though this is so blatantly untrue. Even the most faithfully recreated “true story” will end up nothing like the actual events (and don’t get me started on documentaries). What with all the conflicting voices, it probably isn’t possible to get at whatever sordid truth lies at the heart of Tonya Harding’s story, so Gillespie doesn’t even bother. He presents us with these wildly contradictory accounts and doesn’t even ask us to make up our own minds, just marvel at this chaotic sprawl of testimony. I wish more biopics would take this postmodern path. We might not actually learn anything, but boy, they’d be fun.