I, Tonya, the true story of American figure skater Tonya Harding, could have been a lot of different things. A failed, faux figure-skating Rocky; a mean-spirited take-down; a desperate, pandering biopic; a gritty sports drama. But it isn’t. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya. It is some of those things, it is all of those things and it is none of them. Its brightest moments find a way to be dark, it’s sympathetic even as it’s critical, and it’s as much a narrative about failure as it is about success. It never stops being interesting.

Told through a series of interviews, the film follows Harding’s career (Margot Robbie in a role fitting her talent), as she goes from the first triple axel in US figure skating history to – on the advice of abusive ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and ‘bodyguard’ Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) – planning to send death threats to a rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. It all goes wrong and, rather than a letter, Kerrigan gets a nice firm, knee-breaking thump on the leg, sending Tonya, Jeff and Shawn into a maelstrom of deceit, abuse and paranoia that eventually wrecks Tonya’s career.

as much a narrative about failure as it is about success

Margot Robbie’s Tonya isn’t always likeable – one early, tone-setting scene sees her chide a fellow skater for ‘getting in (her) way’ – but she’s always enigmatic, always complex, never simple. Tonya is foul-mouthed and tough, but she’s driven and she’s funny and always sympathetic. We spend all our time with her, and he tortured childhood, the abusive mother that makes Tonya what she is forgives her less pleasant moments. One scene, in the moments before a traumatic Olympic performance, she sits in front of a mirror, fully made up and cries even as she rehearses her victory smile. There’s a delicacy here, and a complexity that Robbie’s previous roles just haven’t permitted her, but she pulls it off with a well-rehearsed, natural ease. Robbie slides into Tonya’s skin like its her own. Her performance never feels forced, the interviews and fourth wall breaks which frame the narrative are always earnest and, rightly so for a film named I, Tonya, Harding is always at the centre of things pushing the story forward. Robbie’s nothing remarkable, but she proves she’s stronger than Suicide Squad might have had you believe.

Sebastian Stan (left) and Margot Robbie (right)

The acting, though never especially stellar, is strong all-round. Paul Walter Hauser tends to boil Tonya’s bodyguard down to an archetype. A one-note comic relief dumbass blundering through an all-too real world filled with all-too real characters and all-too real emotions. That the film’s conflict relies on his being stupid, is a little creaky but Hauser is a strong enough actor that you don’t think about all that until after the fact. Though Hauser’s Shawn is dubious in and of himself, Hauser makes him a comic-relief delight, underplayed but always well-written, his ‘counter-espionage’ antics had the cinema in stitches.

Tonya’s foul-mouthed mother gets some comic belters, too, but she casts a much more complicated figure. She’s abusive, sure; she puts her daughter down, beats her, she pays a man to boo her at competitions. She’s a terrible mother. But she believes in what she’s doing. She totally believes Tonya has to have someone to prove wrong to succeed, that in sacrificing her daughter’s love to push her forward, she’s making a worthy sacrifice. As she says to her daughter, one lunch time in a diner ‘nice gets you shit’. You don’t sympathise with her, you don’t like what she’s doing, you don’t agree and the film doesn’t want you to. But the real power, both of I, Tonya and of Allison Janney’s frighteningly convincing performance, is in the way it makes you understand, even when you don’t want to.

the real power, both of I, Tonya and of Allison Janney’s frighteningly convincing performance, is in the way it makes you understand, even when you don’t want to

Because this film’s all about understanding. Though the story’s been buried by two-and-a-half decades of popular culture, it’s nonetheless representative of the modern world, of what it means to be famous in the internet age. We have a lot of Tonya Harding’s at the minute; celebrity figures we hate, mock, demonise and put down. Some of them – like Harvey Weinstein – deserve it, but others like, I don’t know, 2009 Stephanie Meyer, probably don’t. To us, these figures are just that, figures; characters in stories, glimmers of light, sound and fury in a 24-hour news cycle that just doesn’t end. To us, and to the people dedicated to making those narratives, they’re just plots, snippets of entertainment, that start and end when the ratings do, but, to the people involved its real life.

Robbie (left) and Allison Janney (right)

Hating on Stephanie Meyer ten years ago was an awful lot of fun for everyone but Stephanie Meyer. These stories define them, they’re all they’ll be remembered for. I, Tonya is dedicated to that ruthless intensity. As one scene in which Tonya’s abusive husband wakes up one morning to find the press packing up and leaving his front yard as though he’d ‘dreamt it all’ makes clear, this is a film all about the before, during and after that restless news-cycle. About the strange cruelty of being known, hated by everyone everywhere, and then of being forgotten.

Should you watch it, then? Of course you should. It has its problems; it’s not always as funny as it thinks it is and the plot, fictional or not, sometimes creaks under the weight of its own contrivances. But I, Tonya is more than the sum of its parts. A pre-Instagram story for the Instagram age, it’s comic even as it’s brutal, sympathetic even when it’s fun, intelligent even when it’s stupid. It’s everything you think you want, and a little more you probably think you don’t.

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