I, Tonya is the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and the events surrounding the 1994 assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Think Black Swan with ice skaters. Let’s call it Black Ice.
Told in documentary style, featuring retrospectives by the main characters, we are shown the events through the eyes of several characters, demonstrating the ambiguity surrounding the events, and presumably avoiding any pesky libel issues.
The film is a peculiar mix of sports movie and comedic crime movie in an almost Cohen Brothers/Martin McDonagh style as it deals with the botched plot and the know-nothing perpetrators. It’s like Eddie the Eagle meets Seven Psychopaths. The dramatic and criminal elements, with Tonya’s abusive husband (Sebastian Stan) and his dopey pal (Paul Walter Hauser), are as well handled as the figure skating so neither element feels neglected.
Special credit goes to Allison Janney as Tonya’s embittered mother, who is the most watchable and memorable character in the film, and not just because she has a bird pecking at her ear throughout. However this relates to one of the film’s biggest flaws, that the number of idiots and nasty characters makes it hard to warm to (the fact it takes place almost entirely on ice rinks doesn’t help either).
It is largely sympathetic to Tonya, who’s well played by Robbie, even while failing to convince entirely as both a younger and older woman. Thanks to four months of training Robbie is at ease on the ice, and in the superbly filmed competition sequences her face is seamlessly edited onto what is presumably a professional skater as we’re taken right into the heart of the action.
The screenplay can’t afford to skate around the issues, so it tackles them head-on, finding the black humour in Tonya’s tale. It also tackles issues of celebrity, fame and trial by media, and paints a picture of a highly determined woman who made it to the big time, but was a victim of circumstances beyond her control. What results is solid and watchable, thanks in large part to Tonya’s highly compelling tale, even if it’s hard to imagine it finishing with gold.