Possibly the coolest film of 2017, I, Tonya, with its multiple narratives, ironic soundtrack and pace of a speeding bullet, felt more like a Goodfellas sequel than a sports biopic. You won’t need to know anything about ice skating to enjoy this film. A triple axel may mean nothing to you either, but you’ll be no less awestruck when you see one.
The biggest screen on the South Coast was heaving with laughter throughout, but the tongue-in-cheek, “irony free” tone of the film was spliced with domestic abuse. When the film ended, another audience member commented on the excessive violence.
“Violence?” It took me a minute. It became so normalised I had barely registered its constant presence. Late in the film, Tonya points the finger at the audience and tells us, “You are all my aggressors,” and maybe this was true. Realising how thoroughly I had enjoyed a film with abuse at its core left me slightly sick, but mesmerised by the sleight of hand that had pulled it off.
Lead actress and producer, Margot Robbie, explained, “There were a million ways to do this wrong and only one way to do it right.” Numerous directors were interviewed before Craig Gillespie was entrusted to navigate the delicate balance of drama and comedy outlined in the script without succumbing to exploitation. The decision to break the fourth wall and put everyone’s version of events onscreen helps distance the extreme violence behind a cloud of hearsay and irony that feels more High Fidelity than Nil by Mouth. “This never happened,” Tonya tells the camera while reloading her rifle. “This next part is not true,” ex-husband, Jeff, assures us before battering Tonya.
There really was only one way to tell this story - it needed no embellishment. Tonya Harding gained worldwide notoriety when she was deemed culpable for the brutal assault on a fellow competitor in 1994, but this was just the crescendo in an already cinematic life. A natural skater at four years old, Tonya was an unbelievable talent, handicapped by her inability to meet the aesthetic requirements of a high class sporting world of $5,000 costumes and wholesome families. Her coach complains that, “She looks like she chops wood every morning.” Her mother retorts, “She does chop wood every morning!”
Exploding with incredible characters and events (and I mean that in a literal sense – many of these seem hardly credible) it’s easy to assume this story of a disgraced figure skater was sensationalised for the big screen. In fact, much of the film is surprisingly accurate. Archive footage of the real people and events displayed in the end credits show that even the most ridiculous characters were depicted faithfully and many bizarre lines of dialogue had been quoted ad verbatim.
Virtually everything, from Tonya’s outlandish choices of performance music to her dramatic shoelace incident at the Olympic Games, is evidenced with real footage of the events. As Tonya’s coach says again and again to the camera, “She really did this.” Much of this really happened. It’s up to the audience to decide whose version they believe.
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