‘I, Tonya’ presents a sympathetic - and scathingly funny - portrait of Tonya Harding

  • This image released by Neon shows Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in a scene from "I, Tonya." Robbie says she really wants to tie on skates and get back on the ice over the Christmas holiday. She learned to ice skate for her role as figure skater Tonya Harding but her contracts on three other films have prevented her from getting back on the blades.. (Neon via AP)

  • This image released by Neon shows Allison Janney as LaVona Golden in a scene from "I, Tonya." On Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, Janney was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a motion picture for her role in the film. The 75th Golden Globe Awards will be held on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 on NBC. (Neon via AP)

  • Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly (left) and Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya.” AP

Washington Post
Wednesday, December 20, 2017

With its title tongue-in-cheekily evoking I, Claudius, another epic tale of madness and debauchery, the dramatic comedy I, Tonya revisits – with verve, intelligence, scathing humor and more than a touch of sadness – the bizarre 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, by goons associated with the camp of Kerrigan’s athletic rival, Tonya Harding.

If dredging up that tawdry subject all these years later seems tabloid-worthy, and little else, you should also know that the movie is a meditation on the elusiveness of truth. (The title also evokes a witness taking an oath.)

I, Tonya is funny when it wants to be, poignant when it needs to be, and surprisingly effective in harnessing these deeper themes to a character who might otherwise be dismissed as a lightweight laughingstock.

“Generally people either love Tonya or are not big fans,” says the skater’s first coach (played by Julianne Nicholson), in an early voice-over that signals the film’s intentions to paint Harding as a national icon, for better or for worse.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a screenplay by Steve Rogers, the film is based on what we are told, via on-screen titles, were a series of “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews that Rogers conducted with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (masterfully rendered here by Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan). It begins with 4-year-old Tonya’s arrival on the ice, pushed there by her stage-mother-from-hell, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). From that point forward, Gillespie tracks Tonya’s slippery path, from the skater’s abusive childhood to her downfall while still in her 20s.

Robbie’s performance is a marvel of a disappearing act, with the Australian actress transforming herself beneath a veneer of tough-girl makeup, crunchy hair spray and the Oregon-born skater’s flat Pacific Northwest accent. But the role is more than an impersonation, and Robbie is able to find – and to show us – the broken pieces of Tonya’s damaged soul, with a kind of fierce vulnerability that makes her not just sympathetic but, at times, heartbreaking.

Present-day reminiscences by these two characters frame I, Tonya, which plays out as a series of flashbacks, during which Robbie occasionally breaks character to directly address the camera. The supporting cast is impeccable, most notably Bobby Cannavale as a TV producer from the tabloid news show Hard Copy, and Paul Walter Hauser as Gillooly’s co-conspirator Shawn Eckhardt.

But it is Janney who steals every scene she’s in, as LaVona, a harridan whose noodging goes well beyond tough love. At one point, LaVona throws a paring knife into her daughter’s arm.

In an extreme example of this psychological torture, a very young Tonya is forced to urinate on the ice after her mother won’t let her take a bathroom break. “Skate wet,” LaVona tells her, coldly.

If such scenes sound shocking, they are. But the film softens the bouts of cruelty with an abiding sense of humane, if absurdist, comedy, smoothing out the tonal shifts that may have you gasping in horror one minute and laughing the next.

Most intriguingly, Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) appears in the film almost not at all. I, Tonya suggests that, in some ways, it’s Tonya who is the victim. At the same time, it doesn’t offer any excuses or pull its punches. Tonya Harding is no angel, as the film makes clear, but we’re also reminded of her grit, determination and accomplishments: The skater was the first woman to execute a triple axel, in 1991.