Based on the scandalous true story, I, Tonya is a gripping watch, albeit while being tonally confused.
With a cast including geek favourites Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan, I, Tonya was always going to attract a lot of fans. The Dubai International Film Festival screening was packed for this ice-skating dramedy, which has earned several nominations at the Golden Globes and is already generating plenty of Oscar buzz. The latter half of the film works better than the first, but it is a pretty solid film for the most part.
What a story!
Relayed via reimagined interviews and flashbacks, I, Tonya tells the story of figure-skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) – at one point, USA’s top figure-skater – and the unfortunate events that led to the end of her career.
We see Tonya as a child as she is pushed by her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), to be the best at figure skating. Tonya is clearly closer to her father but tenuous relations between her parents see him separating from the family, leaving young Tonya completely at her mother’s mercy.
In addition to her frosty relationship with her mother, Tonya is financially unstable, which makes it harder for her to look as presentable as her competitors. Despite these setbacks, Tonya has an ace up her sleeve – she is one of the rare athletes who can successfully land the complicated triple axel.
Into this mix comes Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who immediately connects with Tonya. The two begin a long-standing but exceedingly toxic relationship.
Setbacks prevail in Tonya’s life but somehow she always manages to return to figure-skating and eventually makes her way to the Olympics. Her talent is obvious but it seems she is always a step behind because she can’t afford the best gear or trainers.
When Tonya gets a second chance at the Olympics, she puts in her all in the hopes of beating her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. And then the ‘incident’ happens. Kerrigan is attacked and her knee badly injured. Who did it? How was Tonya involved? Everyone believes their own version of the ‘truth’. Whoever is correct, one thing is for sure… there will be tears.
I, Tonya has generally good acting
The cast is small and do a good job, for the most part. I felt that Robbie and Stan playing teenage Tonya and Jeff didn’t work. Especially since we see Tonya among her fellow skaters, all of whom look like children next to her. And Stan can’t pull off being a teen, at all. The whole sequence ended up feeling awkward, exacerbated by the complete lack of chemistry between the two actors.
Similarly, having the same actors playing older versions of themselves took me out of the film a bit. The makeup on Stan and Janney was good but Robbie didn’t so much look like a woman in her 40s rather than someone in desperate need of some moisturiser.
However, following the ‘incident’, the acting gets much better. Robbie does a great job of conveying Tonya’s obliviousness, fear and concern. The scene in the court was remarkably well-acted and moving.
However, Robbie does not do most of the skating in the film and it is obvious. She does the basics and moves fairly well but for the majority of the routines, her face is CGI-ed onto a professional. 2017 has been the year for poor CGI and I, Tonya adds itself to this ignominious list. The CGI is obvious throughout, especially since the skating routines are shown almost in their entirety. Would it not have been better to get an actor who also had figure skating experience?
Once Stan has to stop pretending to be a teenager, his acting improves. He is scarily good at portraying the abusive partner, and later husband, who is both controlling and incompetent. He makes it very easy to dislike the character.
However, the unexpected star of the show is Allison Janney. As the unlikeable, terrifying and overbearing mother, Janney makes LaVona completely believable. LaVona is a single mother, partly due to her scaring her husband away, who works as a waitress to ensure Tonya gets to be the best. Janney’s LaVona clearly has a dream for her daughter and she doesn’t care what she has to do, and who she has to hurt, to realise that dream. Her performance was riveting and held the film together.
Loving this soundtrack!
I loved the soundtrack! In fact, most of the audience in the hall were moving to the songs throughout the film. 80s music and aesthetics has seen a resurgence in 2017 and this film embodies it.
Some of the soundtrack highlights including Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’, as introduction to LaVona, Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’, to symbolise the doomed relationship between Tonya and Jeff, ‘Gloria’ by Laura Branigan, used to introduce the downhill slide Tonya’s life is about to take, ZZ Top’s ‘Sleeping Bag’, which the real Tonya used for her skating routine, and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, which has pretty much become everyone’s favourite in 2017 thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.
Also featured on the soundtrack are ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum, ‘Dream a Little Dream’ by Doris Day, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of ‘The Passenger’, and Chris Stills’ cover of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.
What is this film trying to be?
I cannot understand why this film is being billed as a comedy. There are a few amusing moments that make you laugh and the tone is meant to be comedic, but there is nothing amusing about abuse and domestic violence.
Tonya is mentally and physically abused by her mother and husband. Director Craig Gillespie does not hold back in showing any of it.
LaVona’s mental abuse of Tonya is quite painful to watch. She constantly belittles her daughter while piling on the pressure. This is in addition to physically shoving and pushing Tonya and chucking a knife directly at her. Whether or not LaVona did these things, it is all shown in graphic detail on screen.
Jeff’s abuse of Tonya is even more graphic. Each slap, shove, crack of face against wood and glass is shown in such vivid detail that the audience kept wincing.
The worst thing is that there are so many of these scenes! And, even when we aren’t being shown the violence, Tonya sports some kind of bruising on her face, just so we don’t forget.
In 2017, a year when women from all over the world have found a combined voice against the abuse they have suffered at the hands of men in Hollywood and beyond, I cannot help but wonder why this film tries to put a ‘funny’ spin on a woman suffering abuse. The film may not be actively trying to make light of the abuse, but the comedic elements surrounding it make it a tough watch.
In addition, there is a bizarre scene mid-way through when Tonya has left Jeff. We see Jeff sitting forlorn in his home with a sad song playing in the background. Are we meant to feel sorry for him? This is not a romantic comedy where the heroine leaves the hero because of some great sacrifice; it is about a woman who is fed up of being used as a punching bag by a man she trusted. But the scene plays out as a classical jilted lover scene. It does not work.
The writers and directors needed to show some sensitivity and discretion in dealing with the issue of domestic violence, but it feels like they didn’t really try.
Should you watch this film?
I, Tonya starts off slow and picks up half way through to become a fascinating thriller. It is, in turns, a raw portrayal of a young woman’s struggles against a system and family that is set against her, a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase between the FBI and the foolish men that surround Tonya, and about a family that just can’t get along.
The film’s biggest drawback is that it is a comedy with dramatic elements when it should have been a drama with comedic elements. By establishing itself as a comedy, the film fails its protagonist and the many women exploited and hurt by the same systemic violence that brought Tonya down.
But, beyond the confused tone and dodgy CGI, I, Tonya is an engaging, and near the end thrilling watch, with performances that slowly capture the audience. With a soundtrack that will have you singing along, numerous laugh-out-loud moments and a brutal look at domestic violence, this is a film that is definitely worth the watch.