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Robbie is brusque, coarse ‘Tonya’

February 3, 2018 GMT

They say truth is stranger than fiction — and that certainly is the case in “I, Tonya,” the story of Tonya Harding and her alleged attack on fellow figure skating competitor Nancy Kerrigan.

For those of you who are too young to remember “the incident” or only recall the other event of that era (O.J. Simpson), let me refresh your memory. Harding, a rough-around-the-edges and talented figure skater was the only woman in the world to successfully complete a triple axel in competition, yet she was never consistently winning. She just didn’t fall into the classification of the girl-next-door image the U.S. judges wanted as a representative for the Olympics.

This is where things get a little dicey.

On Jan. 6, 1994, Harding’s biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked and injured after practice. Harding, along with her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, and ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, were blamed for the attack.

“I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, takes this bizarre story and creates a captivating and hilarious movie — using the real characters’ own words as a template. As the opening scene states: “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Hardy and Jeff Gillooly.” There is no way anyone could make this stuff up!

Harding (Margot Robbie) talks with the audience in the current day. Overweight, unkempt and sitting in her kitchen, she begins to tell us the story of her life. She takes us back to her upbringing, introducing us to her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), who makes Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” look like an absolute sweetheart. We are transported back to Harding’s childhood at the age of 3, or as LaVona calls it, “a soft 4.” LaVona is physically, verbally and emotionally abusive — all the while justifying and rationalizing her behavior. We see the cruelty her mother invokes in every situation. There’s no edit mode or thought that hitting your daughter repeatedly with a hair brush is wrong. The verbal abuse and demeaning behavior is used to motivate Tonya to skate better and the depths to which LaVona sinks are unthinkable. It’s shocking and quite disturbing, yet explains Harding’s choices in life.

We also hear from the other characters in the current day and their contradictory view of history. These interviews are paired and edited perfectly with flashbacks; it’s a masterful feat in creativity.

Fast-forward to Harding at 16. She meets and falls in love with Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who rescues her from her mother. But she just goes from the fire to the frying pan to another ugly cycle of abuse.

Figure skating competitions become more important as Harding gets older and the involvement of bodyguard Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) pushes the story into the realm of craziness.

Journalist Bobby Cannavale, of the tabloid news show “Hard Copy,” interjects his two cents into the matter, providing a balance of rationale as to what is completely outrageous. His quotes are shockingly memorable throughout the film. “We had no idea that something like this could be done by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs,” he says, poking fun at the outlet’s reputation being equivalent to today’s respected publications.

For those of us who recall the event, each cast member is eerily the embodiment of the actual person involved. Robbie is remarkable as Harding, from her awkward late teen period to the younger 20-something woman. How the make-up and wardrobe people were able to transform this stunningly beautiful woman into Harding is beyond comprehension, but much of it has to do with the subtleties of language that Robbie integrated into her performance. Her body language lacked refinement and etiquette and her language usage matched that. Robbie is Harding. She does much of her own skating in the film, but did need a little help from the computer graphics department to help with that triple axel. The transformations don’t stop with Robbie.

Janney, with a parrot perched on her shoulder, becomes LaVona. A tall, beautiful, refined woman in real life, Janney sheds her skin to become a crass and cruel woman. Stan’s performance as Gillooly is spot-on. With his looks and affect, Hauser could have been Eckhardt’s twin.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the talented young actress Mckenna Grace as the young Harding. Pulling off this character, giving viewers insight to how Harding was hardened, is no easy task for any actress. To accomplish this at such a young age is extraordinary.

“I, Tonya” is a masterpiece in recounting the life and times of Tonya Harding. Superb casting and excellence in direction, writing and acting make this one of the top films of the year. It’s really a rather sad tale, but Rogers’ script and the editing make this biopic surprisingly hilarious. Still it does not demean the brutality and cyclical effects of abuse.

4 out of 4 stars