If you were either not aware or not alive when the great 1994 Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal happened, the whole thing was nuts. Both women were figure skaters – the least violent sport aside from lawn bowls – preparing to compete at the Winter Olympics. Kerrigan was Disney princess perfect; Harding less polished, more underdoggy. Shortly before the Olympics, a goon hired by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, attacked Kerrigan, attempting to break her legs with a metal baton. Harding was implicated in the crime and banned from competition for life. It was the campest drama in the history of sport. Director Craig Gillespie tells the story with all the nutso energy it demands and with a surprising amount of pathos.
Its style is a gonzo mix of dramatisation, with some fourth-wall-breaking asides to camera, and mockumentary interviews (based on real interviews with those concerned). It presents as ‘the real story of Tonya Harding’, but the truth is a muddy concept. We get multiple sides to the story – from Harding (Margot Robbie), Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Harding’s monstrous mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, blazing through a role that could be one-note in the hands of a lesser actress). Each account is bizarre and lurid, but it’s up to us to decide which one to believe.
As Harding, Margot Robbie finds a part that’s finally a match for her talents. For years she’s been an excellent lead in so-so movies – matching Will Smith’s star-power in Focus; the only person to make a positive impact in Suicide Squad – or sterling, brief support in better ones – as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in The Wolf of Wall Street; explaining finance in a bubble bath in The Big Short. Now she gets to chew on a lead that demands a lot of her both comically and dramatically. While the film is predominantly a comedy, and a very, very funny one, it goes to some dark places, showing Harding’s abuse at the hands of her husband and the tongue of her mother. She’s the butt of the sport’s jokes too – a goose trying to swim with swans – yet she keeps coming back. Believe her or not, she’s a hell of a subject for a hell of a movie.