Film Review: I, Tonya

Of the films nominated for Best Picture 2018, I’ve now seen The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Dunkirk, Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, The Post. I haven’t seen Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread, or Get Out — although I may yet get to see Phantom Thread, which is still playing here. I, Tonya didn’t make that list.

For Lead Actress 2018, I’ve seen all five performances: Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards, Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, and Meryl Streep in The Post.

I,Tonya is a hard film to watch, unless you’re inured to seeing women smacked around on the big screen, which I’m not. I remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident in real time, of course. Even the film refers to goons attempting to disable Kerrigan’s 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Competition chances by smacking her in the leg with a police baton as “the incident”.

Tonya Harding had enormous amounts of raw skating talent, a cruel and abusive mother — well played by Allison Janney — an absent father, some great coaches, a minimal education, a working class demeanor that often kept judges from giving her skating marks based on her actual performance, an abusive husband, and a bunch of dumb goons surrounding her. Other than her few moments of skating glory, cut short by her complicity or failure to report that the goons who injured Kerrigan were hired by her husband, Harding seems to have had a miserable life.

All of that is well portrayed by actress Margot Robbie, in the first person voice of Harding. Robbie does play a difficult role and succeeds, I think, in holding center stage for Harding — who struggled to do just that growing up and living out her skating career. People around her and watching her skate were constantly trying to throw her off her game.

It’s hard for me to assess an acting performance when I basically find a film unenjoyable and hard to watch. I did feel empathy for Harding, and that’s a consequence of Robbie’s acting — since the facts of the story have been out there for a long time. The acting didn’t move me the way Sally Hawkins’ tender performance did, or make me want to stand up and cheer the way Frances McDormand’s performance did, or make me remember the long road women executives have had to travel the way Meryl Streep did, or draw me to re-experience the raw emotion of adolescence the way Saoirse Ronan did.

I don’t know who I’d pick among those four for Lead Actress, although I remain partial to McDormand and Hawkins in a tie for #1, but I know I wouldn’t pick Margot Robbie. Maybe that’s the tragedy of Tonya Harding’s life: nobody picked her first, even when by talent and skating performance she clearly was.

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