In the 1980s, figure skater Tonya Harding shocked the world by being the first American woman to complete a triple axis jump in a competition. What was even more shocking, perhaps, were the events that followed, resulting in an attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya’s lifetime banning from skating.
It’s a darkly comedic story which offers up a ‘sometimes true’ and ‘sometimes not true’ retelling of Tonya’s life, as told, in parts, in a documentary style interview with Tonya (Margot Robbie), her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s mother LaVona (Allison Janney).
Obsessed with skating, Tonya begins her training at a “soft four” years of age. LaVona is a foul-mouthed alcoholic who wants great things from her daughter, and sacrifices love and compassion in a misguided attempt to build this greatness within Tonya. Janney is frightening; engulfed in a fur coat with a fearsome bowl cut and no-nonsense glasses, she is a low-class Cruella de Vil.
Tonya blossoms into an awkward teen who rebels against her mother by finding a version of love with volatile Jeff. Though she can skate phenomenally, Tonya isn’t the beloved hero America wants to send to the winter Olympics. She’s quick to trash-talk the judges, her hair isn’t quite right and she sews her own costumes. When her parents can’t afford her a fur coat as a child, she helps her dad hunt rabbits to make her own.
It’s her hot-headed reaction to the tiniest perceived act of injustice mixed with her deadly determination to prove everyone wrong which is ultimately her downfall.
Cinematographer Nicholas Karakatsanis mimics Tonya’s outstanding performances on the ice with her interactions with Jeff in the house they share; long, single shots follow their movements through the house, often in the midst of an argument.
The soundtrack reflects Tonya’s emotional ups and downs, particularly while she is on the ice. Often her performances are drawn out in agonisingly slow motion; the audience kept lingering on the edge of their seats wondering whether she’ll make the landing. Assisted by the swell of the music and the look of sheer desperation on Robbie’s face, it’s hard to see the Tonya on ice as a villain.
Ultimately, though, this film is about violence. The violence that can impact a child; the violence that child, growing up, can then impact on the world; and the violence that that adult the child becomes expects. And in Tonya’s own words, she just really wanted to be loved.
– Laura White