A GREAT American scandal of the 1990s until it was pushed off the front pages by the OJ Simpson trial, Tonya Harding's story is one of the most appalling in the annals of sport: both tragic and laughably comic.

Now it has been dramatised into a wildly entertaining film under the stewardship of two Australians: Sydney-born director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and co-executive producer Margot Robbie, who also plays the lead role. In it, she's fearless, ferocious, and very funny.

Harding was a woman from a poor background whose personal image made her an outlier in the graceful world of figure skating. But as the film argues, she was once the best in the world, and her downfall can be attributed as much to the snobbery of her chosen field as to human stupidity.

 

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie are unreliable narrators in I, Tonya.
Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie are unreliable narrators in I, Tonya.

 

The movie features mock interviews as well as dramatised scenes where characters playfully break the fourth wall. "This didn't happen," Harding tells the camera while emptying a rifle at her former husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), demonstrating the unreliability of the film's various narrators.

The camera moves throughout with the flair of a world champion, especially in the exhilarating scenes where Harding is on the ice. Stunt doubles and CGI wizardry augment Robbie's own skating skills to seamless effect.

But in this movie, exhilaration and degradation go hand-in-hand. Enter Tonya's steely, detestable, chain smoking mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who is portrayed as having raised Tonya with a lot of stick and very little carrot. "Are you even trying?" LaVona asks her skating-obsessed daughter in one of her more tender moments.

 

Alison Janney is scooping up awards as Tonya Harding’s foul-mouthed, conniving mother in I, Tonya.
Alison Janney is scooping up awards as Tonya Harding’s foul-mouthed, conniving mother in I, Tonya.

Janney - narrow-eyed, conniving, foul mouthed - has already won a Golden Globe for the part, and well deserved Oscar glory beckons.

We move swiftly through the main events of Harding's life - from abused child to abused wife, from US Championships to the Winter Olympics - till we get to the notorious "incident" involving rival skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) that destroyed Harding's career at the same time as it made her a household name.

The details of this crime may surprise some viewers. They involve a strange and oafish friend of Harding's husband, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), in a fatal combination with Tonya and Jeff's gnawing sense of social inequality - the idea that people like them will never get a fair shake and have to take matters into their own hands.

I, Tonya could easily have come across as condescending. Instead it leaves you feeling deeply sorry for Harding. At least one good thing has resulted from the cruel farce of her life - an excellent movie.

Opens Thursday

 

I, TONYA (MA15+)

Four stars

Director: Craig Gillespie

Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser

Verdict: Top marks for technique and presentation


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