I guess we’re supposed to pre-judge this one. A story – winningly and nearly true-ishly told – about an American Ice Skater, Tonya Harding, who lived a difficult life amongst difficult people and had her career whipped away from her by an attack on her key opposition at all those championships. Knowing and smart, nearly seamlessly CGIed, and stuffed with terrific, accessible portrayals of a scuzzy world, Margot Robbie blows the make-up off as I, Tonya.
Old Jack watched a film about ice skating. Old Mrs Jack would have laughed and then got snippy that it was because beautiful women were twisting, turning and revealing their pants on international television. And, no, I’d find myself saying, whilst I accept that the Robbie must get tired of swooning men, she isn’t setting them up in this film. She’s giving a terrific performance: on the nose, at ground level, rage and talent smashing at the audience, whilst the script ducks and dives through the sweetness and lies that came with this real life story of a perfectly vile act and one of the lives it ruined. Whilst barely mentioning said competitor without covering its arse with defensive respect and wit…
So, Robbie’s Tonya is brutalised through childhood, tormented by a stone-cold bitch of a mother (herein lies the lesson for the seniors: look at what your cold moments may have done!), and forced to skate-skate-even-if-you-get-piss-on-the-ice-skate. Multiple husbands leave the mother, one scene touching even Icy Ivan’s heart as he chuffed down another vodka in the TV room. Exiting Dad gets in car, sobbing child-Tonya (McKenna Grace) blocks the way, begging to be taken from the cruelty of mother. Ulp.
Now. To the mother. Herein lies the glacial heart of the film and a complete, startling and Oscar-winning performance from Allison Janney. And the bird that pecks at her ear in flash forward documentary snippets (The Old Bitch is on Oxygen Now Part 7). Janney sucks on narrow brown cigar/fag things throughout, sneering and dissecting her daughter with gimlet eyes…it’s brilliant and awful. Any time you may lose sympathy with Robbie’s angry 23 year old, thinking her ungracious in a world where, for all the class snobbery, talent gets her to the prizes, out comes Janney’s LaVona. Makes Snow White’s nemesis look hearty and kind.
The film ranges through witness testimony from those involved. As a Brit with a Brit’s vague memories, the scandal brings up a smell of old nausea. Someone cheap hurt someone good would seem to be the echo. But the film, with many a joke and glances off stage tells its story wisely, recognising the contradictions in the witnesses’ testimony and distracts us with caricatures, one fat nerd and violence from Sebastian Stan as the husband.
This last bit gave Old Jack pause. There are domestic punchings, slappings and one near stabbing. And yet the litheness of the editing, mixing drama with silliness with calls for empathy…well, it makes you accept things lightly. There’s a barrier between how you should react and how the film makes you react. Probably not a good thing, but I, Tonya lands many of those punches – much like Tonya’s later life career choices – by being cleverer than the character it presents. Stan’s comic-but-stupid performance helps too.
So. Old Jack’s Coronavirus Lockdown movie number 1: I, Tonya played well in the TV room, mixing its heavy drama and light comedy with deftness and a kind of clunky grace. Quite what the real life people thought of it…hmmm.
Give it a go. It’ll either feed or starve the social snob in you. Hopefully, the latter. And at the very least you get to see Margot Robbie’s head spin in a way that makes you watch it very hard indeed.