On the verge of a breakdown, Margot Robbie gives a fine performance as Tonya HardingNEON

It is Oscar season again, and with it comes the yearly slew of lamentable biopics. Most Britons probably do not know anything about Tonya Harding except that she was a figure skater and the subject of a recent Sufjan Stevens song. Given the extensive, pervasive media coverage of Harding’s every move, this may limit one’s appreciation of the film. I, Tonya focuses on one specific scandal involving fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, a standard ‘Oscar-baiting’ plot; however, the film is sharper than most at using this tired genre to point its jaded finger at the present.

“Incredibly visceral skating sequences, without which the film may well have failed”

I, Tonya suffers from cliché and well-trodden overarching narrative structures. It takes this familiar mould and diverts from it with some interesting, largely successful departures. The story of Harding is told in Rashomon fashion, in key scenes devolving to a semi-narrated style by the conflicting testimonies of Harding, her mother, and her ex-husband. This keeps the audience on their toes far more than usual, meaning the inherently unreliable narrative of a film based on real events is challenged – a welcome development.

One of the most effective moments in the film is one of the numerous Brechtian fourth wall breaks (which go between being astute, as here, and gimmicky), where Tonya directly accuses the audience of their complicity in the media’s harassment of her due to their enjoyment of the film, telling them “you are my abuser”. In a shocking Haneke-esque turn, the film insults the audience in their privilege of spectatorship.

Trailer for I, TonyaYOUTUBE

Indeed, the film is one largely about privilege. The plot deals with the way America faces (or rather ignores) class differences, circumventing the trite reaffirmation of the American Dream-achieving ending these films often have. The Ronald Reagan era provides the film’s subtle backdrop, not invasive yet always pervasive – a world that is startlingly familiar.


Mountain View

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Craig Gillespie’s direction shines especially during the incredibly visceral skating sequences, without which the film may well have failed. They are not only visually stunning, but also used for vital character development, providing subtle moments of vulnerability and fierceness. There is a recurring motif of shoes, juxtaposing the motion of skating with the stasis of the real world, that of Harding’s designated place in American society.

The comic tone often underplays the poignancy of certain scenes, not saved by the brilliant performances by Margot Robbie and Alison Janney. It occasionally feels as if we are laughing at, not with, the misfortunate people depicted in the film. Ultimately, I, Tonya still succeeds by turning its gaze towards the audience, criticising the very people that take joy in the tired yearly biopic rush, the film ever more human for it