Thursday 24 May 2018

I, Tonya movie review: 'Enjoyable and unsettling'

4*

Play it cool: Margot Robbie as Tonya
Play it cool: Margot Robbie as Tonya

Paul Whitington

Margot Robbie and the team behind I, Tonya can count themselves unlucky that while the likes of Three Billboards and Darkest Hour have been rewarded with Best Picture Oscar nominations, their film didn't make the shortlist.

At least Robbie and her co-star Allison Janney got Best Acting nods: they make a chilling, hilarious double act in this perfectly judged black comedy based on the life of American figure skater Tonya Harding.

She became a national pariah in January of 1994 when it emerged that her estranged husband Jeff Gillooly had orchestrated an attack on Harding's rival Nancy Kerrigan. The US tabloids and trashy news channels instantly decided Tonya was the mastermind, and descended on her like starved hyenas, but in this enjoyable and unsettling movie we discover that Harding was more sinned against than sinning.

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Tonya was forced into skating by her fearsome single mother, LaVona (Janney), whose merciless beatings were probably less damaging than her emotional cruelty and remoteness. The little girl turns out to be a natural and by her teens is one of the best figure skaters in America. But the judges and national selection committees don't like the cut of her jib: her flashy routines and homemade costumes are at odds with the lady-like elitism of Olympic figure-skating, and every obstacle will be placed in her path.

When she becomes the first American woman ever to complete a triple axel in competition, her talent can no longer be ignored, but meanwhile Tonya has met and married Gillooly, a glum non-entity who takes up where LaVona left off and starts beating the tar out of her. I, Tonya pulls no punches in depicting the physical abuse to which Harding was constantly subjected, and it was director Craig Gillespie's idea to have Tonya raise her eyes to heaven and talk directly to the audience whenever it happens.

This, and a disconcerting comic tone, makes it possible to sit through and even enjoy a bizarre domestic drama that might otherwise have been hard to take. Robbie is superb as Harding, a raw, determined young woman whose chippiness makes her hard to like. And Allison Janney's LaVona is a wonderful creation, a banal monster who gasps oxygen through a nasal tube while smoking furiously, and clearly considers herself blameless in all regards.

Irish Independent

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