“If you thought Robbie could get ugly as the Joker’s g.f. Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, she takes grit to another level in 'I, Tonya' as she escapes onscreen into Harding’s hard-nailed, trailer trash punk persona.” Deadline
It’s been a strange year for films. So many of the US summer blockbusters fizzled and at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) there wasn’t a clear cut Oscar frontrunner in sight.
Both the Venice winner Guillermo del Toro’s 'The Shape of Water' and the TIFF winner Martin McDonagh’s 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri' are artful in their telling and should be up for awards: del Toro for best director, McDonagh for best original screenplay and Frances McDormand for best actress. (While Gary Oldman has to be a best actor contender for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s 'Darkest Hour').
Will the oddity that is 'I, Tonya' fit in? Will Margot Robbie be a contender? Variety has just released a list saying she is.
Clearly keen to add another vastly different character to her wide-ranging repertoire, the Queensland-born Hollywood star not only plays the disgraced figure skater, Tonya Harding in the unusual faux documentary, but in what marks her first effort as producer she has recruited fellow Aussie Craig Gillespie to direct.
It’s interesting to note that apart from his Hollywood movies, 'Fright Night', 'Million Dollar Arm' and 'The Finest Hours', Gillespie is responsible for 'Lars and the Real Girl', one of the oddest and most wonderful movies of all time. Star Ryan Gosling still loves it too.
In Toronto, Gilllespie said he was attracted to the screenplay and to working with Robbie.
“Margot has this dance she can do in her acting where she’s funny, dramatic and empathetic at the same time," he said.
"Steven Rogers’ screenplay had a very tricky tone and I loved that it was unapologetic and touching and dangerous and funny.
"You get the sense of these people living in the public eye and the choices and mistakes that they make.”
Unlike half of Canada, Robbie said she was unaware of Harding’s story until she read the screenplay. She had a lot of research to do, but favoured spending limited time with her subject.
“Craig and I spent a couple of hours with Tonya in Portland before we started filming, and we thought that was enough. We didn’t want to be overly influenced by her.”
A redneck high school dropout, Harding was vulgar and foul-mouthed, wore garish homemade costumes and according to one Canadian expert, was not given the scores she deserved as a ground-breaking figure skater.
In the movie, Robbie’s Tonya is a kind of straight girl around whom all the white trash crazies in her life revolve. She talks to the camera and gives her point of view. She’s been abused most of her life, pushed to the brink from an early age by her mother LaVona Golden, played by Alison Janney.
The real tragedy of the piece sets in when her violent husband Jeff Gollooly (Sebastian Stan) hatches a scheme to attack her rival Nancy Kerrigan to ensure Tonya is the contender for the Olympic medal.
The movie argues that although Harding knew nothing of the planned 1994 attack, she received a lifelong ban from the sport, was stripped of her 1994 US title and issued a $100,000 fine for failing to report the attack to the authorities.
Cute Mckenna Grace (currently on screens in Gifted) plays Harding from age four and Robbie comes in from age 15 to 44. The painstaking Aussie went back and looked at Harding’s routines, and trained strenuously over four months to recreate certain important moments.
“I knew I wasn't at a professional level,” the actress admits, “and the more time I spent with our skating doubles the more I realised I would never be at their level. If you’re not doing it from when you’re very young, you've got no hope.”
To this day only seven women have cleanly managed the triple Axel jump, which Harding did 25 years ago and she was only the second woman to do so in competition.
Still, this is no straightforward sports drama or biopic. Rogers based his screenplay on separate interviews he conducted with Harding and Gollooly and they completely contradicted each other. Ultimately which genre the film might fall into is up for grabs. A black comedy sports drama (as one critic describes it) does not do it justice.
In any case TIFF audiences, those wily ice-loving Canadians, were wildly enthusiastic, awarding the film the second prize in the all important People's Choice Award. On the opening night they screamed not only at the entrance of Robbie, but for the scene-stealer Janney who is likely to reap supporting actress gongs in the awards season for a role that was especially written for her by Rogers, her good friend.
“LaVona was fun to play and I had a soft spot for her,” Janney says. “She only wanted the best for her daughter; she saw her daughter as a ticket out of a life she didn’t want to be in. But it was easy to leave her on set,” she chuckles.
Whether Australian audiences want to watch a dark, satirical take on a bunch of American dullards (some find the film patronising) remains to be seen. Even for American buyers the price went down after the film screened with it selling for US$5 million according to Deadline. Netflix reportedly offered US$8 million yet the filmmakers favoured a theatrical release.
I, Tonya will be out in Australia just before the Oscars on February 15.
In the meantime Robbie has a big studio movie Goodbye Christopher Robin coming up for release in the UK, and releasing here on November 29. She plays the wife of Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson.
She also plays Queen Elizabeth I in 2018's Mary Queen of Scots alongside Saoirse Ronan in the title role.