Like Battle of the Sexes, this is elaborate bit of sports-related gossip – aimed squarely at the acting awards bids – is in essence a remake of a TV movie … in this case, the 1994 Alexandra Powers-Heather Langenkamp picture Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story. The earlier version made more of the struggle between contrasting American figure skaters, but this treats Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) – who was, let’s not forget, the victim of a not very amusing physical assault – as a cipher. ‘Nancy gets hit once and the world goes crazy,’ says rival Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) in the course of describing her own travails. Before getting to ‘the incident’, the film follows Tonya as she escapes from abusive mom LaVona (Allison Janney) only to hook up with husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who keeps breaking promises not to batter her and keeps coming back – often invited – into her life even after unpardonable offences like kidnapping at gunpoint.
Scripted by Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Stepmom, Kate & Leopold) and directed by Craig Gillespie (Mr Woodcock, Lars and the Real Girl, the Fright Night remake), this has to deal with a tangle of contradictions and admits up front that it’s based on wily irreconcilable testimonies by the participants – scenes of Jeff hitting Tonya are followed by the cooler-seeming, later-in-life interviewee saying they didn’t happen, and one or two key issues are unresolvable. The film suggests but cannot confirm that Tonya was vaguely aware of Jeff’s plan – involving his useless fat lump sidekick Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who has a sinecure as Tonya’s bodyguard, and a couple of deadbeats, Shane (Ricky Russert) and Derrick (Anthony Reynolds) – to spook Kerrigan during a key Olympic training period with a mailed death threat, but did not know that Shawn would interpret this as a license to have Shane invade an arena and break the woman’s knee with a baton. That this is a major hole in the story is confirmed by one of the creepier betrayals, as Tonya’s estranged Mom talks herself back into her daughter’s house to offer sympathy and respect at her lowest point but is toting a tape recorder because she’s been paid by the gutter press to solicit a confession. What’s left is a character study of Harding, whose white trash background plainly grates on the snooty skating world – in which she gains a purchase thanks to a burst of virtuosity in performing a difficult stunt (a triple axel) that has to be explained even as it’s shown in slo-mo through a remarkable bit of CGI. Yes, it can’t help but evoke that Blades of Glory gag about the killer ice dance move.
Robbie, following her Goodbye Christopher Robin turn with another biopic, pulls out all the stops, including a spell in braces, in making Tonya multi-faceted rather than simply hateful. Stan, however, simply plays Jeff as a zen-like presence in later life but a seethingly ghastly younger man in the bulk of the film – in many ways, the most interesting, bizarre relationship is that between Jeff and Shawn, with the latter childishly insisting ‘but I am’ over and over as an interviewer questions his credentials as an international terrorism expert. Hauser is terrific in a creepy turn as the sort of useless, malicious fantasist who’d be an internet troll these days. However, the standout player is Janney as the chainsmoking nightmare mother – almost too entertaining to be as loathesome as she needs to be. Incidentally, the ageing make-up on Janney in the ‘interview’ segments is Dick Smith quality brilliant. As is traditional in true life stories with a black comic edge, the soundtrack is a K-Tel album’s worth of catchy pop hits deployed to ironic purpose. It slides past entertainingly, and takes the trouble to implicate the audience – and itself – in its exploitation of Tonya Harding, whose career was turned into a punchline by the demented, callous acts of other people. The toffee-nosed judges who won’t give her a break because she doesn’t fit the profile they want for their inverted commas sport are cartoonish enough for the Will Ferrell comedy version, but the real venom is reserved for a mother, husband and extended circle who encourage her bid for fame and achievement (plus, it’s rarely mentioned, money) but also want to sabotage it to prove she’s no better than they are.