I, Tonya, directed by Craig Gillespie, offers a brutal window into the life of Tonya Harding and will undoubtedly shock you. But it’s also a film that feels very rough around the edges. Things feel slapped together in a haphazard, sloppy way, and there is a lack of consistency to much of the presentation. In that mess though, are some truly outstanding performances. Performances that wowed me and are certainly career bests for a fair few of the actors. So, does the messy delivery of the film result in an experience that I would not recommend having, or is there still enough incredible talent on show that you should make the effort to see, I, Tonya? Well, let’s explore those questions and more in my review, shall we?
Loosely based upon the true story (emphasis on the loosely) of Tonya Harding – portrayed by Margot Robbie – and her rise to infamy. We follow her story from a young age when she first began ice-skating, all the way up and beyond the infamous event where fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan – portrayed by Caitlin Carver – was brutally assaulted by… well that’s still not completely clear. We get an unforgiving glimpse into the life of one of America’s most hated sporting figures, and it is a glimpse that will shock you and unsettle you.
I, Tonya boasts some absolutely sensational performances, and for many of the actors, career best performances. Front and centre is of course, Margot Robbie. She is an actress who continues to evolve and continues to highlight that she’s one of the most promising actresses working today. I sat in amazement as the beautiful Australian actress disappeared, and before me was a faultless portrayal of Tonya Harding. In particular, it was during the interview scenes that Robbie was at her best. Watching them, I thought to myself, ‘I’m watching an actress at her very best, right now.’ It is a performance that is more than worth award praise, and I think that if her competition wasn’t so strong – both Sally Hawkins in, The Shape of Water and Frances McDormand in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri are performances that can’t be overcome – that Margot Robbie would have been a serious contender for the award.
Margot Robbie embodies the character and transforms herself to such an extent that she’s unrecognisable. But her performance was marred in one specific way: near enough every time she was on the ice, taking part in a competition, it was to obvious that it wasn’t her. The scenes on the ice left me conflicted. On the one hand they were brilliantly shot. The camera would follow Tonya around the ice, almost seeming to dance along with her. I really enjoyed watching this element of the scenes. It was in these moments that the craziness of Tonya’s life would fade away and it would be just her and us (the audience) getting lost in what was her everything.
However, Margot Robbie wasn’t able to do much of the more difficult movements on the ice (which I do not disparage her for), but it meant they relied on CGI face mapping to make it look like her, and it looks terrible. Anytime I noticed it (which was a lot) it would immediately take me out of the moment – robbing me of being immersed in what were some wonderfully shot scenes. It became quite frustrating after a while, especially when I came to expect it. These scenes soon lost any meaning for me, which in turn only removed me further from the film. You can see why I’m conflicted when it comes to the scenes on the ice. In one way they beautifully handled and in another they are harmful to the experience. It still doesn’t take away from the incredible performance by Margot Robbie (I think it would be unfair to say it did) and neither do my next to actors who I want to talk about.
So beyond the exceptional work by Robbie, there is also Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan – who both also deliver career best performances. LaVona Fay Golden (Tonya’s mum) – portrayed by Allison Janney – is a person you can’t look away from, despite how deeply unpleasant she is. I was fascinated by her, and in a messed-up way. Allison Janney as her character, chews up the scenery with her unforgiving and unrelenting physical and mental assault of her daughter, Tonya. There were times where she would somehow have me laughing, and then other times she would repel me in disgust and anger. It is a titanic performance by Allison Janney, of a person you can’t take your eyes off of. Janney is currently cleaning up this award season for the role and I fully expect her to go onto win the supporting actress award at the Oscars – an award she fully deserves (though if Laurie Metcalf were to win it for her role in, Lady Bird, that would also be wonderful).
Not to be overlooked (apart by the awards season, which looking at the competition is probably fair) Sebastian Stan – who portrays Jeff Gillooly. My primary on-screen knowledge of Stan’s work is what he’s done in the Marvel films, playing The Winter Soldier. I have seen him in a few other roles but nothing particularly memorable. This is the first time where I have watched a performance by Sebastian Stan and been completely engrossed by it. The seemingly sweet innocence that he exudes pulls you in; tricks you into thinking he will be a pleasant character to watch, but when his anger boils over, his face transforms into something frightening, I saw someone whose unpredictability and penchant for violence scared me. I went from enjoying seeing him appear in a scene along side Tonya, to fearing what he might do next and wanting him far, far away from her. Sebastian Stan disappears and becomes the character of Jeff Gillooly, and despite how awful a person Gillooly was, it was still incredible to watch Stan work.
All around, I, Tonya is a film with a tremendous selection of characters. A varied bunch of odd balls that for one reason or another, I found enjoyment in watching (despite how awful some of them are). More than anything else this is a film where nearly all of the actors get to show just how good they are, and are given enthralling characters to do that with. But (and I’m sure you knew that ‘but’ was coming if you read my introduction), I, Tonya is a film that builds a messy, unstable support structure around them – a structure that continually pulled me out of the experience and frustrated me to no end.
I, Tonya states in the beginning that it is loosely based upon the true story of what happened (‘m paraphrasing the statement), but I didn’t realise that by ‘loosely’ it actually meant ‘not at all.’ What I mean by that is: I, Tonya was a film that never felt like the telling of a true story (even if it had many elements that did in fact happen or were true), it instead felt like an overly produced fantasy telling of the events. The way in which this film went about telling its story was so farcical and inconsistent in presentation, that I didn’t believe what I was seeing, and my want to continue watching the film lessened, the more it went on.
There were times during this film where I was fully engrossed in what I was watching. There were some fascinating characters wrapped up in a story that was engaging… in the beginning. But I soon found myself irritated, bored and fed-up with the way in which the film decided to go about telling its story. Frantic editing that cut between various styles of presenting the story, odd fourth wall breaks, various ways of communicating the story, overbearing and distracting music choices. It got to the point where I felt bombarded and beat down by the film; no longer wanting to be a part of the journey. I desperately wanted it to settle down, find a more reasonable rhythm and stop making such intrusive attempts to hold my attention.
And this all led into taking one of the most compelling elements of the film away from me: Tonya Harding herself. In all the noise and flashy style choices, Tonya Harding herself seemed to get lost in it all. There were points where she would even disappear from the film, while it dragged the focus over to other things. It resulted in me not feeling like I actually got to know who she was. I wanted more time to learn about her personally and to explore deeper into her mind during that turbulent time. But the film focused more on its plot, and thus she became an afterthought.
I was really looking forward to this film, and so my level of disappointment was not something I was expecting when I left the cinema. The frustrating thing is that there is a really good film somewhere in I, Tonya, it’s just you have to fight your way through a lot of nonsense to get to it. However, I am of the belief that a general audience will be entertained by this film and all its flashy, exciting content. Which leaves me in a difficult spot when it comes to recommending this film. It wasn’t for me, but it definitely will be for others.
I will recommend, I, Tonya, because I believe that despite my dislike for many of the elements of the film, a general movie going audience will walk out of this film feeling satisfied and entertained with what they had seen. Plus, a lot of the actors in it are deserving of having their brilliant work seen. So, while I won’t be watching this film again any time soon, I hope you find some enjoyment in it.
I’m really interested to know what you thought of the film and my review of it, so please sound off in the comments section down below with any opinions or feedback you may have. If you liked what you read, may I recommend following both my blog and Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – so that you know when a new review goes up. But that’s all there is left to say at this point, a part from thank you. Thank you for taking the time to read my review and I hope you return to check out more.