I, Tonya review: “an irreverent, entertaining patchwork”

Margot Robbie dances up a storm as the controversial figure skater, but it's Bafta-winning Allison Janney's icy performance that dominates

I Tonya

★★★

Disgraced US figure-skating champion Tonya Harding gets a somewhat sympathetic makeover in a perky, provocative biopic from Australian director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Lars and the Real Girl), starring Margot Robbie.

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I, Tonya celebrates Harding’s talent and admires her rebellious spirit but hides behind its humour as her hard-knock life becomes an irreverent, entertaining patchwork.

For a film that draws on what it describes as the “irony-free” recollections of its subjects, it is steeped in arch comedy and gimmicks from the outset: from the talking-head interviews that give it a faux-documentary feel, to the fourth-wall breaking asides (including one mid-coitus). Gillespie oversees a lively and amusing blend that’s easy to enjoy if not always well-judged, for instance a montage of Harding’s childhood abuse at the hands of her mother is crassly played for laughs.

Acerbically scripted by Steven Rogers (better known for the more mawkish end of the cinematic spectrum with films like PS I Love You and Stepmom), I, Tonya is most notable for a film-stealing, Bafta-winning turn from Allison Janney as the aforementioned monstrous matriarch – the memorable of name, merciless of nature LaVona Golden, who Janney plays with pursed lips, busy fists and a potty mouth. A resident of Portland, Oregon, LaVona is the dirt-poor driving force behind a daughter who wins her first competition aged four (“Those bitches didn’t know what hit ’em,” an older Harding fondly recalls).

Yet, despite her technical prowess – her eventual mastery of the challenging triple axel makes her US number one – Harding is far from the ladylike ideal that US Figure Skating would prefer as champion of their sport, and the film suggests her scores suffered as a result. Her contrastingly elegant coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) wafts in and out of the picture, while first love Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) is an altogether less benign presence, picking up where her mother leaves off beatings-wise, and eventually plotting the infamous attack on Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).

Antiheroines are still unusual on screen and the film presents a complex picture of a flawed, cheeringly nonconformist woman, stained by her association with Kerrigan’s assailants (she pled guilty to conspiring to hinder their prosecution), while Harding’s lack of self-esteem finds its counterpoint in her ability to unhesitatingly extend a middle finger to her critics.

Robbie captures Harding’s increasing disaffection as the years roll by, including the wariness of someone who spends her life being judged for reasons other than her skating, foregrounding her rough edges without ever making her unlikeable. Yet, at 27, the actress is less successful at conveying Harding’s vulnerability (she predominantly plays her between the ages of 15 and 23). Meanwhile, the CGI-assisted attempts to convince us that Robbie is replicating the skater’s derring-dos are of mixed success.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Harding’s story was an easier sell as a black comedy. The film might be on her side – in a touch that will perhaps please the real Harding, Kerrigan barely features at all – but it doesn’t deem her deserving of serious examination, and withholds its sincerity for the final throes where Robbie gets an emotional, and convenient, “For Your Consideration” moment.

Although ostensibly confrontational, I, Tonya seems afraid of letting the audience feel the full force of Harding’s suffering at the hands of her abusers; however frequently this is depicted, such scenes are neutralised by the overarching air of freewheeling fun.

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I, Tonya is released in cinemas on Friday 23 February