I, TONYA AND THE COMPLICATIONS OF NARRATIVE
Written by Amber Jackson
Tonya Harding was one of America’s professional figure skaters and was the first American woman to successfully land a triple axel jump in competition. Her story is infamous, but for all the wrong reasons, primarily for the incident that involved figure skater Nancy Kerrigan being attacked. This dragged Harding into a huge controversy, which also surrounded her husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly, and resulted in her being banned from skating altogether. I, Tonya portrays the Tonya Harding that many knew as headstrong and aggressive, but also goes behind the scenes, exposing her private relationships and the emotions that escalate as a result of them.
Conducted in a documentary style, this is a unique film in the sense that there isn’t a specific reliable narrator, or even narrative. Instead, the story is told by multiple characters who each desire to be in control of their own narratives. This leads to many unreliable narrators telling many different versions of the same story, trying to justify their behaviour at the time. There are many ‘to-camera’ moments, mostly from Tonya (Margot Robbie), who refuses to admit fault on her part. This becomes a running theme throughout the film, where each incredibly flawed character neglects to claim responsibility for their actions, stating that all that happened wasn’t their fault, which ultimately begs the question: who is right?
The role of Tonya was adopted by Margot Robbie, who received her first Oscar nomination for Actress in a leading role and, although she wasn’t victorious, her performance was incredibly moving. Adopting a Southern drawl, she was almost physically and vocally unrecognizable. She combines passionate anger perfectly with devastation to portray the hardships of Tonya Harding’s life. In showing tragedy awash with bleak comedy, it’s clear that the physical and verbal abuse that Harding endured is the true centerpiece of the film. In achieving this balance, an incredibly raw atmosphere is created, where every actor is completely ‘in the moment’ in order to provide audiences with an insight into the life of Tonya Harding and how the people she was surrounded by completely shaped her life, consequently ruining it. One example being LaVona, Tonya Harding’s mother, who was portrayed by the incomparable Allison Janney. Once you see this film, you can immediately see why Allison left the Academy Awards with her first win for Best Supporting Actress because she is completely captivating. She effortlessly embodies the flawed priorities of a Mother who constantly tells her daughter that she won’t amount to anything, whilst believing that she’s doing the right thing.
The structure of the film itself is gritty and intelligently edited together, so as to create an intensified atmosphere. Tatiana S. Riegel received an Oscar nomination for film editing that portrays characters in an incredibly raw light, yet distances the audience from this to an extent. In being removed, you understand that the characters survived these incidents, but are left wondering how in the hell? Coupled with an incredibly retro soundtrack, including artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Doris Day and Siouxsie and the Banshees, the film combines melancholy with passion in a way that sums up who Tonya Harding was as a woman and as a skater, which really resonates.
Robbie was one of the film’s producers and worked with the production company that she started, LuckyChap Entertainment, which serves to promote women in film. The aim is to put more women in positions of power within film in order to change the industry, which Robbie believes is done through the telling of female-led stories. I, Tonya is a great example of this ethos, as each character was fully fleshed out and undefined by traditional gender expectations. Tonya Harding was presented as angry, badass and not ‘girly,’ much like her husband Jeff (played by Sebastian Stan) who is also incredibly flawed and not at all superior to his wife. Ultimately, the film reflects on Tonya Harding not being able to be her true self, shrouded and abused by the people in her life that should have respected and cared for her the most.