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‘I, Tonya’: A winter Olympics watch

| Friday, February 4, 2022

Claire Reid | The Observer
IMAGE SOURCES: New York Times, Unsplash, emoji.co.uk, Wikipedia

After finishing, “I, Tonya,” I had to sit in silence and stare at the wall for a minute or two to process what I had just watched. I did not know how to feel or what to do with the emotional rollercoaster the movie put me through. To put it bluntly, the movie is weird — a good weird. 

“I, Tonya,” starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney follows the life and career of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, focusing on her involvement with an attack against Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 winter Olympics in Norway. Over the course of the film, the audience follows Tonya from abusive relationship to abusive relationship, watches as she struggles to fit into the skating world’s nearly-unachievable model of femininity and roots for her as she chases Olympic dreams against striking odds. Along the way, the movie becomes part tragic character study, part over-dramatized ice skating (or dancing, or gymnastics, or any other generic female-centered aesthetic sport here) film, part under-dog sports movie and part botched heist flick. 

Filmed in a mockumentary style with actors giving contradictory interviews that take us through the narrative, the movie has an ironic self-awareness that sees characters breaking the fourth wall to pause the action and sarcastically comment on traumatic onscreen events. Scenes sometimes play through twice to account for different viewpoints. In doing so, it almost becomes a parody of itself. It pairs portrayals of extreme abuse and violence with dry, cutting remarks from the people involved. 

Margot Robbie does a stellar job at playing a sympathetic but never weak Tonya. She carries the movie over most of its emotional range. Her performance of Tonya made me laugh when I shouldn’t have, want to cry, bite my nails in anxiety for her and cheer when she triumphed. Even her odd accent that had hints of Robbie’s Harley Quinn contributed to establishing a Tonya that did not fit with her ice-skating compatriots.

Sebastian Stan portrayed Tonya Harding’s abusive boyfriend, husband and ex, Jeff, and did an excellent job of acting crazy, desperate, manipulative and generally making me hate his character. His mustache? Creepy. His actions? Despicable. Good job, Sebastian Stan. He, however, cannot play a fifteen-year-old boy. It just doesn’t work. Production should’ve casted someone else as young Jeff.

I also have to comment on skating costumes. The movie took pains to accurately reproduce the costumes that Tonya Harding wore to when she competed. The costuming work was masterfully done. They served as a central narrative and scene setting device that contributed to making the film seem like a documentary. I always have a deep appreciation for all things sparkly and historically accurate. They dazzled me, a moment that contrasted with the rest of the movie’s tone.

All in all, the movie is a fittingly complex portrayal of a complex woman. Harding faced the challenges of prejudice and scandal while competing at the highest level of one of America’s most scrutinizing sports. Behind the scenes, she had to face a whole host of devastating problems in her personal life. It explores her story in a manner that is hilarious, horrifying, heartbreaking and all-together human.

“I, Tonya” will leave you with a newfound appreciation for a woman who has become notorious in U.S. Olympic figure-skating history. The movie will also have you thinking: “What did I just watch?” Revel in the confusion and the strange because “I, Tonya” is well worth the watch. 


Title: I, Tonya

Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney

Director(s): Craig Gillespie

If you like: “Black Swan,” “Whiplash”

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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