Film Review: I, Tonya
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
I, Tonya breathes new life into the biopic genre while telling the story of the most infamous figure skater of the 1990s, Tonya Harding. The film elaborately captures everything that formed her and “the incident” involving Nancy Kerrigan in 1994; her music taste, her outfits on the ice rink, and how she lived her life as the most hated and beloved skater in America and arguably worldwide. However, I, Tonya is not all about the plot; it is more about how the cinematography, the shots, the editing, and the VFX add to the film world.
The most noticeable thing about the film is the distinct feeling of watching a black comedy. The movie is taking abuse, fighting, and abusive relationships out of context and uses them for entertainment (for lack of a better word). I personally didn’t laugh at these scenes, but the entire theatre I was in was laughing, which points out the brutality of I, Tonya’s tone. It’s difficult to watch at times, and part of the reason is because it so openly disrupts the Hollywood biopic.
The camera shots with the digital camera and Kodak film are the first and the last element that stands out in I, Tonya. For example, the scenes of Tonya’s past, the interviews, and her wedding were shot on Kodak film on the BMD camera to give the effect of VHS footage. They switched to digital when they shot the famous triple axel scene. The changes between the digital camera footage and Kodak film footage results in some of the attention dragged away from Harding herself.
It is now impossible to mention Tonya Harding without Margot Robbie’s performance. Her astonishing facial expressions capture Harding’s face and show us even more than the woman herself ever has. The interesting part comes when you have to reconcile a film which relies so heavily on the protagonist’s face with filming complex figure skating scenes. Regardless of Robbie’s dedication to method acting, learning a triple axel for that scene was not possible, so a body double was the safest choice. When a scene is digitally manipulated to make the action work while keeping disbelief suspended, the camera rarely closes up on the face of the character. However, director Craig Gillespie went out of his way to keep the focus on Robbie’s face for her expression, which is a testament to the degree of care that went into the film’s construction. The team EightVFX is the team behind this outstanding scene, and in an interview with Mike Seymour (FXGuide), they mention that they shot 200 VFX for creating a flawless scene with 6 witness cameras. There are of course some choices that were made out of necessity that take away some of the realistic feel of the movie, but this scene might commence an innovation of VFX for camera shots.
I, Tonya is ingenious in terms of film techniques, narration, camera shots, and editing. The portrayal of Harding is brutally honest, relentless and unapologetic, kind of like The Wolf of Wall Street, but instead of being indulgent and comedic, it featured a painful poetic character introspection.