Who knew Tonya Harding was a boxer?
Don’t be mistaken though, her life story is no Million Dollar Baby.
Born into a cycle of poverty, poor education and domestic violence, Harding’s greatest asset was a keen competitive edge along with a passion and talent for figure skating.
Notorious for her involvement in the attack on skating rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, Harding became one of the most hated people in America in the early 1990s.
I, Tonya tells the story of her upbringing and how she came so close to glory, but fell so hard.
Harding owes most of her recognition and notoriety as a direct result of that scandal which helped her earn a place in the Olympic squad.
Struggling to reach the top tiers of figure skating despite being named US Champion in 1991, Harding had walked away from the sport before being lured back when the Winter Olympics switched to alternate dates to the Summer games, creating an opportunity for her to compete again at an international level.
Desperate to make the Olympic team, Harding is complicit in endorsing her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) to arrange for an associate of his (Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt) to menace Kerrigan ahead of the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
Instead of just intimidation, the target of the threats is physically attacked, forcing Kerrigan to withdraw from the national championships allowing Harding to win that event and earn a place on the Olympic team.
Under intense public scrutiny as the FBI closes in on the culprits, Harding grapples with the pressure of the attention and the elite competition at the ’94 Games, failing to perform to her abilities, placing 8th.
The first American woman to perform a triple axel at an international event, Harding was handicapped by her background, with her disadvantaged upbringing determining that she would always come up short in the critical area of presentation, despite her technical proficiency.
The film has been nominated for 3 Oscars – Best Actress for Margot Robbie and Best Supporting Actress for Alison Janney as well as Best Editing for Tatiana S. Riegel, a longtime collaborator of Australian director Craig Gillespie.
Whilst the performances from these two actresses are powerful, it is the way the story is told that, much like its namesake, prevents I, Tonya from greatness.
Marrying at 19, Harding’s relationships with both her husband and her mother were tainted by physical violence. The only place she could escape was onto the ice, but even there she was not safe, as she was judged for her lack of appearance.
With a monster for a mother, and a brute of a husband, Harding was never able to break free from these two elements in her life that prevented her from reaching her full capabilities.
The film makes it very difficult to empathise with Harding, as she comes across as a major and willing participant in her own downfall.
I suspect that American audiences will relish rehashing the tawdry details of this tragedy, but I sit off to the side with other reviewers who criticise the film for mocking it’s subjects.
Quoting from the film’s Wikipedia page – Richard Brody of the New Yorker felt the film failed to find an original depiction of the working class, and “treats Tonya’s background, her tastes, her habits, her way of talking, as a joke… The result is a film that’s as derisive and dismissive toward Tonya Harding as it shows the world at large to have been”. In the Guardian, Jean Hannah Eldestein felt that the film was “played for laughs” at the expense of its subject.
For me this is a film about domestic violence and the underbelly of the poor working class in America who aspire to greatness but never stand a chance. In that regard I find the film treads a path of a series of mean spirited digs at easy targets.
We barely scratch the surface of what really motivated Harding or what enabled her to reach an international level of competition in spite of her almost constant setbacks.
At the end of the film safer she is tripped of everything we see her enter a boxing ring where the crowd bays for her blood. Perhaps it is meant as an indictment on the American psyche and their obsession with heroes and villains, but I, Tonya never really explores the inner workings of the title character.
3 Stars – “Housos on Ice Minus Jokes”