I, TONYA: America’s class war, on ice

It was one of the scandals of the 1990’s. American ice skater Tonya Harding, chasing an Olympic dream, had a spectacular fall from grace when she was linked to a violent attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan.

That’s what most will recall about Tonya Harding. And, not being a follower of ice skating, I admit a film about her story didn’t immediately appeal. But the film’s trailer promised an edgy, compelling watch. And that’s exactly what the movie turned out to be. And the main reason, apart from its well constructed storyline, smart script and excellent acting, is that it gives insight into the real world Tonya Harding lived in. Sure, this is a story about an ice skater, but perhaps it could have been about an equestrian rider or a tennis player or maybe a golfer. This is really about rich and poor.

And Tonya Harding was poor, and uneducated. She was her mother’s fifth child, born to her mother’s fourth husband. Her father, who she loved, left the family when the marriage broke down. Her mother swore at her all the time, and occasionally hit her. Her boyfriend (later her husband) hit her all the time. At times, she hit back.

But even as a four year old, Tonya Harding showed a talent which promised her, and her family, a better life. She could skate on ice. But in this world she would struggle to be accepted. I, Tonya shows how she didn’t dress as well, speak as well, or generally present as well as many in the sport wanted her to. We see the efforts her family made to help her overcome all this  – the sequence involving rabbits is a classic – but she didn’t break through this cultural barrier until she became the first American woman to perform a triple axel manoeuvre. Once she achieved that, the doors opened. For a while.

This is all told with some superb directing, writing and acting. The sequences showing Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding on ice are very, very well done. The way the camera follows her, with a great use of the sound of the skates, makes for a riveting piece of cinema. I’m not sure how well Margot Robbie can actually skate, and one assumes some form of computer generated wizardry is involved. If so, it’s seamlessly done. If not, sincere apologies to Margot Robbie.

Robbie herself skilfully shows a young woman who knows she’s been on the back foot from day one. She puts up her mother’s constant vicious verbal abuse. She puts up with her husband’s violence. She battles against the collective prejudice of the ice skating judges. It’s to Robbie’s credit that while she portrays Harding’s determination, she doesn’t overplay it. Harding battled, but often as a possum in the headlights, rather than someone always in control of her fate.

Allison Janney as Harding’s mother delivers many of the film’s best lines, and with her hard, mostly impassive face, steals just about every scene she’s in.

And as for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, don’t arrive at the cinema expecting the definitive account of what happened. But the film is all the better for this. It explains right at the outset that it’s based on accounts from the original participants, and those accounts contradict each other. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers deal with this by peppering the story with various characters giving us asides to the camera. They are judiciously placed and if anything turn the film into somewhat of a mystery thriller. Who to believe, and when?

I, Tonya is a film I enjoyed more than I expected to. It’s at times violent, and funny, and offers a sharp commentary on America’s social classes. One critic describes it as “The Goodfellas” of figure skating. But these aren’t gangsters taking control. These are people over their heads, flailing to achieve something better for themselves. So above everything else, this story is a tragedy. Very highly recommended.



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