Soon after its release, The Wolf of Wall Street had several accusations hurled at it, suggesting that it was glamorising the life of its titular subject Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo Di Caprio. Admittedly, Belfort looks like he’s having a ball, but, in terms of glamorisation, if you think he’s something to aspire to then it says an awful lot more about you.
The reason why I bring this up is because I, Tonya, the latest from Charles Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), looks set to receive unwarranted criticism regarding the veracity of its tale. There are some who feel the film is trying to exonerate her of her crimes. And in doing so, it feels as if people are misunderstanding the complexity of its antagonist.
I, Tonya sees Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad) playing the titular Tonya Harding, working class good girl turned celebrated figure skater. Oh, and she may have had something to do with the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, a rival skater, which happened in 1994. In retelling the events that led up to and go beyond the assault, I, Tonya negates the traditional biopic narrative and has Tonya’s life recounted by Tonya, her ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and, only occasionally, Tonya’s supposed bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser).
Of course, no two people ever tell the same tale and I, Tonya is up front about this. An opening card informs the audience that what they’re about to hear is not the whole truth and very likely contradictory. This can be seen in the way Jeff and Tonya describe their marriage, with Tonya breaking the fourth wall in Jeff’s interpretation of events to plead her innocence. It’s a trick that worked wonders in Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People and Stephen Hopkin’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. And by using this trick, the movie mitigates any need to say its interpretation of Tonya is telling the truth. When the film says that everyone is lying, it’s hard to simply centre on Harding herself. It works too, to a point.
No, making a martyr out of Harding is not the issue. Its real problem is whether it wants to look down upon its subject or revere her. Robbie gives an outstanding performance, one which deserves the praise she’s been receiving. However, throughout the screenplay from Steven Rogers (PS I Love You), there are moments when the madcap energy of the film doesn’t match up to what’s happening on screen. When Jeff takes a swing at Tonya, or smashes her head against a mirror, the effect is somewhat diminished by Robbie turning to camera to give a pithy one liner. ‘Look,’ the film seems to say. ‘She’s making light of it, because she’s used to it. Don’t worry if you giggle.’
Okay, so perhaps, that’s not the film’s intent, but domestic abuse is a heavy spice to throw into a film. It’s also not one you can ignore when you’re talking about a real-life person. Therefore, stick to a tone and perhaps don’t make it an overtly comedic one.
That said, I, Tonya is still a worthy film to watch. It might not be the ‘Goodfellas on skates’ that the marketing would want you to believe, but it gets by by trying to re-establish Tonya Harding as a real life human being, instead of the punchline she’s become. Sometimes it’s not just life’s good guys that deserve to have their lives told. And when that happens, we have to listen to their side of the story too.