REEL TO REAL | TRUE LIFE DRAMA : I, TONYA [REVIEW]

By Yong Shu Hoong

If you’ve been noticing Australian bombshell Margot Robbie since her appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and, more recently, her show-stealing portrayal of Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (2016), this new biopic brings her up to another level in her acting career.

In I, Tonya, she plays the titular role of Tonya Harding, an American figure skater from Portland, Oregon, who has won the US Championships and even made it to the 1992 Winter Olympics (she came in fourth). But she was more infamous for being implicated in the 1994 assault on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan – a crime orchestrated by her lovingly abusive husband, Jeff Gilooly (played in the film by Sebastian Stan of Captain America: The Winter Soldier fame).

Directed by Australian film-maker Craig Gillespie (2007’s Lars and the Real Girl and the 2011 remake of 1985 horror classic, Fright Night), I, Tonya tells the story via Tonya’s quest for Olympic glory, interspersed with flashbacks, mockumentary interviews that evoke reality TV, and dazzling skating sequences. Robbie, also one of the film’s producers, pours her heart and soul (not to mention four months of skating practice) into her role. The multiple accolades that she has garnered – including Best Actress nods for Screen Actors Guild Awards, Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards – bear testimony to her convincing performance.

Courtesy of Shaw Organisation.

But some of the limelight is stolen by an even more impressive turn by Allison Janney (The West Wing, Juno), who plays Tonya’s mum, LaVona Golden. Elevating child motivation (or some may insist, abuse) to high art, LaVona has no qualms swearing at her daughter or hitting sense into her. The audience’s typical reactions to such onscreen ill-treatment tend to be a mixture of shock and bemusement, which may lead to some critics feeling uncomfortable with the film’s way of poking fun at America’s white-trash culture and the folks at the lower rungs of society who are associated with it.

I agree it’s a fine line between social realism and parody here. Still, Tonya does come across a much more sympathetic character than you might have expected (after all the negative press that one can still remember from the 1990s). The film’s focus is squarely on her, whether it’s charting the odds that are stacked against her (particularly, how she’s being sidelined by her sporting fraternity for not being wholesome enough), her difficult relationships with her mother and her husband, or slo-mo re-enactment of how she achieves the rare “triple axel” on ice.

And as exhilarating a ride I, Tonya is, what’s a sports movie without a robust soundtrack? And since this is a review for Power of Pop, it would be unpardonable for me not to mention a few songs from the soundtrack: “Devil Woman” (Cliff Richard), “Romeo and Juliet” (Dire Straits), “Goodbye Stranger “(Supertramp), “The Chain” (Fleetwood Mac), “Gloria” (Laura Branigan) and “The Passenger” (Siouxsie and the Banshees).

Courtesy of Shaw Organisation

What’s missing is the 2017 single “Tonya Harding” by Sufjan Stevens, who is currently Oscar-nominated for Best Original Song for another film, Call Me By Your Name. Apparently, the music supervisors for I, Tonya rejected his wistful tribute. Otherwise, these famous lines in Stevens’ song – “Well, this world is a bitch, girl / Don’t end up in a ditch, girl…” – might have been an apt way to end the film as the credits roll.

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