Adam reviews the newest film from director Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya, starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney. The film was one of the special screenings at the AFI Film Festival 2017.
The most shocking reveal to many who see Craig Gillespie’s brilliantly dark examination of infamy and judgment, I, Tonya, will be how much empathy the audience comes away with for Tonya Harding. The film’s refusal to be about figure skating and about the “incident” finds itself defiantly asking you to care for someone the media and public vilified. Anchored by a truly staggering performance by Margot Robbie, a pitch-perfect script and inspired direction, I, Tonya will surprise and delight those willing to take the ride.
Those expecting as many have described this “the Goodfellas of Figure Skating” should look elsewhere. Brilliant direction, editing and scripting are the only things the films share in common. Where Scorsese’s film is an insider look at low-level hoods, I, Tonya is about a woman’s struggle to define herself on her own terms in a profession that only wants perfection and clean lines. More stylistically in common with Warren Beatty’s Reds, using a pseudo-documentary framework to tell the rise and fall of one of sports most divisive figures.
The film quickly introduces Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney), a true stage mother who would frighten even the most steely-eyed of drill sergeants. LaVona bullies her daughter (played by Maizie Smith and McKenna Grace in the childhood sections) through the rank and file of figure skating to Olympic level competition. LaVona as played by Allison Janney is almost unrecognizable as the abusive matriarch. Janney strikes the perfect balance of menace and humor in the part that makes for a magnetic performance.
The film moves from Harding’s childhood to her teenage years and her push to make the Olympic team. The film never sugarcoats Harding’s struggles nor her treatment by those around her. Harding is besieged on all sides by doubt, abuse (both physical and emotional) and harsh criticism. In Margot Robbie’s hands, Harding is the actor’s first powerhouse performance. She’s unadorned, direct and pure in her portrayal of a historical figure. Robbie approaches the work not as a joke but as a person who at every turn has had life smack them in the face.
It’s Robbie’s unwavering approach to never make Harding a joke or a caricature that pushes this film into greatness. I, Tonya hinges entirely on the actress. Everything from the interview framing device, to the voiceover work to every actor’s performance. Her level of work here is on par with the great performances of the last ten years. This forces everyone into better quality work. To add that she does so with so much grace and ease only adds to the power and awe of the performance.
Actors like Sebastian Stan who have been good in other work, here as Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s abusive dim bulb husband is electric. Jeff is a disgusting pig of a human being. Stan is given the space to play that but also the tender moments. Robbie guides his performance with her unfettered moments of intimacy.
Someone like Allison Janney finds in Robbie, an actor that measures up and excels beyond her own talents. Their moments together are electrifying and should be a university course in great acting. The spine of the film is their complex relationship as mother and daughter. The intimate moments between them feel embarrassingly honest. Janney is allowed to go to the darkest of places, but showing a deeper level. The bruises are transparent in a way that Janney could not have shown without a willing and powerful partner in Robbie. Like the Joni Mitchell album Blue, there is a stripped away honesty that Janney brings that knocks you out especially in the final moments between LaVona and Tonya.
I, Tonya is ultimately a classic star vehicle in every sense of the label. The entire film resides on the shoulders of Margot Robbie. The actress does far more than succeed in creating an indelible performance. This is a roar that echoes through cinema. This is Margot Robbie announcing herself, not as a star (which she already is) but a performer on the same level as the best working actors in cinema. Names like Huppert, Day-Lewis, Blanchett and DiCaprio come to mind after you see this performance. And like those actors, Robbie is sculpting her own persona. The work here is singularly her and her alone.
Harding is a figure we have never seen before on screen brought to life with such vivid empathy and understanding. In Robbie’s hands she never asks you for sympathy. The actor and film dare you to understand the anger, the rage and the frustration that is Tonya Harding. It is an unapologetically-daring performance from an actor that could have gone with easier roles. Robbie proves with this film that she is neither wanting of, nor going to participate in, a normal career trajectory. I, Tonya stands electrifying cinema and the announcement, if anyone was in doubt, that Margot Robbie has arrived as an heavyweight actor.