Just when you think the Oscar race can’t get any tighter, in swaggers I, Tonya, straight out of left field and hits you with a hefty sucker punch, right in the kisser. This noisy, brazen biopic is wonderfully enervating and it’s clear that its claim to be ‘the Good Fellas of figure skating’ isn’t so very wide of the mark. Indeed, the constant jumping from time-frame to time-frame, the fake interviews, the occasional deadpan remarks delivered straight to camera and, above all else, the wonderful classic rock soundtrack – all serve to remind you of Martin Scorcese’s finest movie. But it’s much more than just a pale imitation of that film. There’s so much to admire here, not least Margot Robbie’s incendiary performance in the title role.
Tonya Harding, it seems, had a fight on her hands from her earliest days. Knocked around by her hard-as-nails, chain-smoking momma, LaVona (Alison Janney, in brilliant Oscar-baiting form), beaten up by her ne’er-do-well husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), she manages to battle through, performing manoeuvres on the rink that no other skater has ever dared to try – but her ‘wrong-side-of-the-tracks’ persona doesn’t stand her in good stead with the judges, who like to see a little more deportment doled out alongside the leaps, twirls and pirouettes.
Of course, we all know why she came to wider attention – through the notoriety of a vicious attack on her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), which left her hospitalised just as they were both preparing to skate in the Olympics. Despite being only tangentially involved in the incident – it was originally devised as a series of poison pen letters by Jeff and then pumped up out of all proportion by Tonya’s so-called ‘bodyguard,’ Shawn – Tonya ends up paying the highest price when Shawn decides to go a bit further with the plan and enlists the aid of some very dodgy people indeed. What follows is so bizarre, it can only be a true story…
Director Craig Gillespie handles the material with an edgy, almost experimental approach, throwing in slow-mo and jump cuts with glee – and the mesmerising skating sequences are so cleverly staged, you literally cannot see the joins. That appears to be Robbie on the screen, skating up a storm, but it can’t really be, can it? Like many other recent biopics, there’s a final sequence of interviews showing the real life protagonists, just so you can fully appreciate how close these characterisations keep to the originals, which is particularly surprising in the case of Paul Walter Hauser’s hilariously off-the-wall performance as the cartoonish Shawn. It’s an eye-opener.
Go and see this riotous, hard-hitting and occasionally hilarious film and enjoy what must qualify as one of the strangest sporting stories in recent history. And as for that rock soundtrack, if you can manage to sit in your seat without twitching and foot-tapping along in accompaniment, then you’re made of sterner stuff than me.