In January 1994, Olympics-bound ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed in the knee by a thug after practice. Within days, Kerrigan's fellow skater Tonya Harding and Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly were accused of orchestrating the attack. Although the story was over in mere weeks, the nonstop press coverage made it feel like an eternity at the time.
More than twenty years later, Harding remains a notorious, fascinating figure. For this reason, I, Tonya, a rollicking dramatization of Harding's and Gillooly's exploits, feels more relevant than you might guess. There are lots of reasons why this movie shouldn't work: Australian sex symbol Margot Robbie seems too pretty to play Harding, and not girlish enough. There are innumerable direct-to-camera interviews with the cast in character. The fourth wall is occasionally broken mid-scene. The soundtrack is packed with familiar classic rock hits. Yet the whole thing works.
Robbie vanishes inside Harding's character, proving that a good wig, a bit of makeup, and a fully committed performance can work wonders. (The thrillingly shot skating sequences also benefit from flawless digital cut-and-paste: that's not really Robbie doing all those triple axel jumps.) She and the film around her walk a narrow line between farce and sympathy. There's plenty to laugh at, sure – the Kerrigan attack was coordinated by an astoundingly stupid bunch of guys, led by Shawn Eckhardt (a scene-stealing Paul Walter Hauser) – but Harding's life of physical abuse, first from her mother (Allison Janney) and then from her husband (Sebastian Stan), was no laughing matter. Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers, working off real interviews with Harding and Gillooly, are careful not to melodramatize these scenes. Harding, like so many women of her economic status – early in the film, Robbie-as-Harding bluntly refers to herself as "white trash" – learned to live with the abuse. We see only how it shaped her character.
Some viewers may tire of I, Tonya's self-conscious flourishes, reminiscent of The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street (both of which featured Margot Robbie!), but I found it hugely entertaining. It's funny, it's sad, it's multilayered. Even if its only job were to change the public's mind about Tonya Harding, it would be a success. Thankfully, it gives us much more than that – not least the fantastic, awards-worthy performances of Robbie and Janney.