Review: I, Tonya


A fresh approach to the biopic structure which is fiery and entertaining, with performances you won't forget.

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The Oscars have always been full of biopic films. A regular staple of the awards season, likely due to their ability to show case brilliant performances with inspiring, emotional stories. I have a long-standing issue with the Oscar bait biopic, which is that in most cases the film will offer an amazing central performance wrapped up in a mediocre or unimpressive film. Recent examples of this (in my opinion) include; Trumbo (2015), Flight (2012) and Invictus (2009). I am very happy to say that I, Tonya does not fall into this trap, and has enough flare in its script and directing to match the stunning central performance of Margot Robbie. Although this doesn’t make it a flawless movie. In I, Tonya, Margot Robbie gains her first Oscar nomination for playing the unapologetically foul-mouthed Tonya Harding, a real-life US Olympian figure skater with a scandalous career. Also starring, and playing equally larger than life characters, are Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney who has also gained an Oscar nomination for her role as Tonya’s mother.

To support the film’s brilliant performances are the script and story structure. Based on the video tape interviews with all the figures involved, it recreates these interviews which then tell the story in flashbacks. This isn’t a new plot structure by any means, but in this case the way it offers contradicting viewpoints to the events that occurred adds a great level of richness and humour to the film. On top of this, the tasteful use of breaking the fourth wall and the film’s self-awareness makes for brilliant comedy. The use of dark comedy in the script is also well suited, as a serious approach to this material would prove a taxing affair. While Robbie’s performance is brilliant, in terms of comedic talent, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney excel.

It is the performances that are the main talking points of the film, and where it is gained its awards buzz from. Allison Janney is all but guaranteed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and rightly so, for her chilling portrayal of the mother from hell. While some may find her character over the top, Janney brings a level of conviction to the role that is strikingly impressive, reminding one of J.K Simmons’ Terence Fletcher. As mentioned, the comedic and energetic style sometimes hinders how relatable or believable the whole story is, this issue is overcome for a large part due to Margot Robbie standout performance. She makes every part of Tonya feel real, from the self-hatred that competitive athletes feel after failure, to the ego that comes with success. As the film progresses as she peruses greater glory, Robbie conveys the mounting sense of pressure with great intensity. A scene involving makeup application is simply superb.

However, the sheer level of entertainment that the script offers is also one of the issues with the film. Due to the fact these characters are so loud and unusual, and how the script is very humorous in its delivery, the film seems slightly artificial. It is difficult to totally believe in the characters, because sometimes the dramatic elements are overshadowed by the film’s style or traded in for humour. One example is a scene when Tonya’s father leaves her at an early age, it is undercut by the use of a famous rock and roll song as the score, which takes away any emotional impact the scene could have had. Equally some of the scenes of domestic abuse which could be equally emotionally impactful are reduced by Tonya’s direct address with a funny comment. So, while the script is hugely entertaining, it does at time distance you from the characters. But for most of the film, the characters are accessible.

To match the writing of Steve Rogers, director Craig Gillespie takes an equally bold approach to great success. The ice skating sequences implement slow motion and a totally fluid camera to create some very tense and dazzling sequences. The fear of a broken ankle is never far away as you watch Robbie throw herself into the air. Equally he shows great skill at staging and presenting the scenes of physical confrontation, whether it’s for comic or dramatic effect. One comic sequence with a shotgun and one dramatic scene with a knife are highlights and show that Gillespie is a great talent.

I, Tonya (2018) directed by Craig Gillespie, is distributed in the UK by Clubhouse Pictures, certificate 15. 



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Film Studies student at Southampton. Reviewing not critiquing. Ars Gratia Artis.

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