Film Club: I, Tonya


In this week's addition to MUSE's Film Club, Emily Harvie takes a look at the gritty biopic I, Tonya.

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By Emily Harvie

Endlessly scouring through Netflix to binge watch films has become a hobby of mine during endless days stuck at home, and the critically acclaimed I, Tonya has recently been added to the streaming site. This gritty biopic is not exactly the light-hearted comedy I have been binging through most of lockdown, however, it does claim to be a comedy and is perfectly dramatic and almost grotesque in its delivery.

If you don’t know already, I, Tonya follows the rise and fall of figure skater Tonya Harding’s career from being the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, to her controversial involvement in an attack against her rival Nancy Kerrigan, orchestrated by her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers blend the bleak nature of this controversial event with comedy and energy. They create an uncomfortable and almost erratic narrative as we follow a mockumentary style recount of Harding’s life. A 70s setting adds to the dreary look of the film, and iconic music such as Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ underscore this intentional sensationalism of the film.

The film revels in recounting the ‘contradictory’ interviews from both Harding and Gillooly. It acknowledges their positions as unreliable narrators and runs with it, delivering its most comedic moments through clumsy interviews with the characters, full of pauses and convoluted statements. The film allows its audience to laugh at the incredulity of the situation and wince at the ridiculous excuses each character blurts out. The dramatic details of the story, the gossip, and the conspiracies around it have not been lost on the filmmakers. Instead, they use this to their advantage and work to heighten tension around the characters’ own retellings of the story.

Margot Robbie is almost unrecognisable in her starring role as Tonya Harding, the shamed skater who has become somewhat of an American gossip topic since this film’s release. She has repeatedly scoffed at the narrative in its presentation of her and has revelled in telling her own side of the story in multiple interviews on American morning shows. Robbie is far from the glitz we are familiar with from her; dressed in clashing clothes and sporting a dishevelled appearance. Robbie is built up to emphasise Harding’s gloomy life and does well in her performance to highlight Harding’s descent into disgrace and desperation.

Much of the bleak narrative stems from Allison Janney’s Oscar winning performance as LaVona Golden, Harding’s abusive mother. Her alcoholism and strict parenting frame Harding’s childhood and tarnish her achievements as she grows up. Her mother pushes her to achieve more as a skater despite their redneck reputation and is unforgiving in her methods. Yet Harding’s life becomes even more of a struggle as she meets Gillooly and enters into an abusive relationship. Her mother is once again overly cruel and harsh on her daughter, throwing more blame towards her by criticising Harding as a ‘dumb piece of shit who thinks she deserves to get hit’. This vicious home life emphasises this gritty narrative and Robbie gives a convincing performance as a woman slowly losing herself through her ambition.

Despite its dark comedy and grim themes, this film has a charm to it. I, Tonya is enticing yet horrifying as its scandalous nature grips you throughout. The deliberate sensationalism illustrates the bizarre nature of the story and is framed by the resurgence of interest in Harding’s story beyond the film.