“I was loved for a minute, then I was hated, then I was just a punchline,” the scrappy Tonya Harding, portrayed by Margot Robbie, puts it bluntly in this movie that that looks at the life of a figure skater the world has loved to hate since the 90s. Even Barack Obama used her name as the punchline to a joke in 2009. But I, Tonya, aims to redraw those negative images associated with her name and finally tell the story from Harding’s perspective in a dark and gripping comedy that is being celebrated the world over.
For the uninitiated, Tonya Harding was once a figure skater from the wrong side of the tracks who took the world by storm. She was the first female skater in the world to successfully complete a triple axel in competition – it’s a complicated and dangerous move on the ice. Her life was overshadowed by a domineering and unloving mother -brilliantly portrayed here by Allison Janney – a violent husband and an incompetent ‘bodyguard’. Harding competed in the Olympics twice before her career was cut short by a court ruling. After her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, arranged for an attack on her Olympic rival Nancy Kerrigan she was convicted for her role in the attack.
Director Craig Gillespie takes on Tonya Harding’s life story in an unconventional manner. The film skips from Harding to Gilloly’s perspective and back again, and all the while both characters claim their retellings as unreliable. As much as these retellings are played for laughs, there’s a lot about Harding’s story that is simply heartbreaking. She suffered persistent violent abuse, dropped out of school early, lived dirt poor and was constantly let down by those closest to her. She fights back with her sharp tongue and incredible strength, and certainly seems to give as good as she gets, but this still feels like a story laced by tragedy, and laughing at that tragedy gets a bit uncomfortable.
I, Tonya was released overseas last year and so has already managed to score itself Golden Globe, Screen Actor’s Guild and British Film Academy nods. While some of the critics are harsh, the audience seems to just love it (89% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, hello) and its award nominations are testament to its universal appeal. I, Tonya is a redemption story at its heart and one well deserved for a woman who has been a joke for too long. “My entire life I’ve been told I wouldn’t amount to anything.” Harding says. “Well, you know what, maybe I would.”