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I, Tonya – Review


Release Date: 8 December 2017 [USA]
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Cast: Margot Robbie - Sebastian Stan - Allison Janney



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Posted December 17, 2017 by

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I, Tonya Review:

When overworked mother LaVona Golden (Janney) discovers her daughter Tonya has a latent talent for ice-skating, she stops at nothing to make sure Tonya becomes the best skater in the world. Tonya grows up (into Margot Robbie) and becomes the first US woman skater to perfect the elusive triple axel. But her tumultuous love life with husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan) and her troubles with her family hold her back from attaining the glory she once seemed destined to bask in.

After hitting a particular low, Tonya’s career is given a new lease of life. She is all set to participate in her second Olympic games when ‘the incident’ takes place. A fellow skater is horrifically injured and Tonya is under suspicion. With the FBI on their tails, it is anyone’s guess who was actually involved and whether Tonya was in on it or not. Thus, goes the story of I, Tonya, a sports film unlike most others and focusing, for once, on a troubled and flawed female sportsperson.

I Tonya getting ready

A nervous Tonya

This has been a rich year for female-led films, and this one is no different. In the lead character we have a woman who perseveres through hellish conditions to continue her passion for figure-skating. Robbie captures the wide-eyed innocence of young Tonya as perfectly as the cynical older woman during the staged interviews. I wouldn’t say this is her most outstanding performance, but it is evident she has worked hard to emulate the physicality of a skater and embodies the role fittingly.

Fellow comic book actor Sebastian Stan’s performance is uneven, at best. He loses the high-pitched nasally voice of Gillooly part way through the film (but regains it in the nick of time) and occasionally fails to emote completely; but he is frighteningly good when showcasing Gillooly’s anger and violence, while also shining through the comedic scenes.

The scene-stealer is Janney, whose LaVona never seems too far away from the story. Her subtle anger and passive-aggression eclipses any need for hysterics, a direction a lesser actor would have gone for. Among the supporting cast, she is the only one who stands out, as the others either ham up their performances or disappear into the background.

I Tonya Alison Janney

Alison Janney, the scene-stealer (Credit: Neon)

A striking positive for this film was its soundtrack. From the get-go you can tell you’re in for an unusual musical ride – where else would you come across Devil Woman by Cliff Richard? There has been a resurgence in 80s nostalgia off-late, and the songs selected for this film are only going to encourage disco fever further.

I, Tonya has already racked up numerous Golden Globe nominations, but after watching the film, one cannot help but wonder why. The direction and screenplay are tonally out of sync with the main story, which begs the question why the filmmakers decided to go down the route of comedy at all. The story of Harding, from what we can gauge from this film, is not one to be laughed at. The director unabashedly shows us the brutal abuse Harding is put through by her mother and her husband; but he intersperses it with asides discrediting the protagonist’s revelations and then incorporates jokes and gags the audience is too afraid to laugh at. There is nothing comic about domestic violence, and its portrayal, especially in 2017, should be handled with sensitivity. Instead, the director uses the violence as another frivolous gimmick – the audible gasps from the audience around me implied this technique simply didn’t work.

I Tonya Margot Robbie

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya (Credit: Neon)

Unfortunately for the film, the direction lets it down throughout. The use of CGI to superimpose Robbie’s face onto an actual figure-skater during the routines isn’t successful. The make-up also fails to age up or down the actors effectively. Robbie doesn’t look 15 when she first appears on screen, and Stan looks far too old to play her boyfriend when they first meet. He looks almost paedophilic (moustache included) as teenaged Jeff, which does his performance a disservice. Robbie and Stan have zero chemistry, so it doesn’t even make sense why the two get together – other than the fact that they have to follow the course of history.

Also, I would love to have commended the costume department for creating believable replicas of Harding’s real outfits, except that the pants for all the skaters are extremely high cut, which is completely at odds with the costume shown in the footage at the end of the film. It feels like the costumers took a leaf out of Justice League’s book.

The archaic technique of staged interviews and random The Office­-style confessionals look gimmicky instead of eliciting any excitement from the audience. The pace and intrigue only pick up during the FBI investigation, when no one can be trusted and the stakes are high. It feels like the director’s interests lay in telling the truth about the sensational incident that would eventual ruin Harding’s career. Perhaps the entire film should have been an investigative look into that occurrence, instead of trying to be a by-the-book biopic.

I, Tonya’s own format is its greatest enemy. Director Craig Gillespie’s work usually has a dark undertone, but Harding’s life story (as we know it) is much too tragic to be used as comedic fodder. Had the director inserted amusing moments into a dramatic film, it would have worked a lot better. By not giving the protagonist her due and by trying to underplay the domestic abuse element, the filmmakers have created a Frankenstein’s monster of a film that is cruel to its central female character and to the audience who are left on tenterhooks wondering when the next laugh will turn into a gasp of horror.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
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