In the realm of modern-day tabloid sensations, the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal occupies the sort of rarefied air shared by only a select few counterparts.
With the biopic “I, Tonya,” director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers have a high bar to clear in their desire to tell that story on screen and provide it with something new. It’s hard to complicate the well-established picture of the figures involved in the attack on Kerrigan in January 1994.
They find their way in with an approach that avoids the usual crutch of a reliable narrator and a straightforward linear progression, contextualizing that seminal moment by depicting the larger scope of Harding’s life, and deepening our understanding of a person often regarded as little more than a low-level, criminal punchline — by focusing on her fundamental humanity.
Formatted as a documentary of sorts, with talking head interviews interspersed in the action and contrasting perspectives often at play, the movie relishes its time spent in this world. Embracing the absurdities inherent in the two-bit planning of the incident at the center of this story, the movie has moments where it plays like a satire of a crime movie.
At other times, particularly in its depiction of the abuses directed toward Tonya (Margot Robbie) by everyone from her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who was convicted of masterminding the attack on Kerrigan, to her mother (Allison Janney), the movie is gut-wrenchingly real.
It’s a true balancing act, a tragic comedy in every sense of the term, and it only works as well as it does because Robbie seems possessed with the sort of deep, emphatic connection with the real-life Harding that allows actors to disappear into a role. She is sensational, wildly vacillating between anger and sadness, brief highs and impossible lows, and she gives a face and a voice to an infamous and little-understood figure. That’s, of course, what acting in the best possible sense is all about.