For anyone under the age of about 40, the story of disgraced US figure skater Tonya Harding won’t necessarily be a familiar one.
But her role (unwitting or otherwise) in one of sport’s biggest-ever stories, makes for a hugely entertaining movie – albeit one that plays fast and loose with at least some of the facts involved.
In the 1990s, Harding was arguably the best figure skater in the world, having nailed the triple axel; an amazingly tough move that nobody had successfully managed prior to her.
She was, however, a controversial figure; a spiky character from a poor background in Oregon who didn’t present the feminine ideal that the US skating’s traditionalists preferred their female stars to exude.
Then in 1994, ahead of that year’s Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Harding was implicated in a vicious assault on her American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, aimed at ruining her hopes of a medal.
How much Harding knew about the attack remains open to speculation, but her husband Jeff Gillooly was at least partially involved in a bungled scheme that badly backfired and effectively ended his wife’s career.
An opening caption says the movie is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”.
Because of this, it’s hard to work out who is speaking the truth, but the film takes a broadly sympathetic view of Harding. She’s a victim too, but a feisty and not always likeable one.
Harding, played by Margot Robbie, comes from family background where she endured both mental and physical abuse as a child.
Her father left when she was six and her mother, LaVona Golden, played by Alison Janney, was a strict, unloving parent obsessed with turning Tonya into the best ice skater in the world.
Harding left high school to fully focus on skating but then meets and marries Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who – according to his wife’s testimony – turned out to be even more abusive.
Harding’s career goes well but she never feels the judges and the public accept her compared to the others.
‘America, they want someone to love and they want someone to hate’ – Tonya Harding
Her mother always had to make her costumes because they don’t have enough money. Harding calls herself a proper “redneck”.
After one competition, she waits for one of the judges in a parking lot and confronts him, asking why she never gets the points she deserves.
He replies: “We are looking for a wholesome American family,” but Harding doesn’t fit that image.
It really frustrates her because she is not pretty enough and her costumes and impoverished upbringing are seen as more important than her skating.
One day, Harding receives a threatening letter which plays on her mind. Jeff and his best friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) decide they should do the same to Kerrigan so she will be too scared to compete well.
However, Shawn – an obese fantasist who lives with his parents but claims to be Tonya’s bodyguard as well as a counter terrorism expert – decides to hire two dim-witted petty criminals to injure Kerrigan instead.
The attacker hits her just above her knee, leaving Kerrigan in agony but she onl suffered bad bruising.
Kerrigan and Harding both qualified for the 1994 Winter Games, but by then the latter’s life is unravelling as proving the guilt of Jeff, Shawn and his clueless henchmen proves to be easy work for the FBI.
Harding finishes in seventh place in Norway as Kerrigan skates to a silver medal.
Jeff and Shawn were sentenced to prison, while Harding got three-year probation, a fine of $160,000 and a life ban from skating.
At one point, she was one of the most hated people in America, but until this day she maintains she did not know about the plan to attack Kerrigan.
The movie has a bit of everything; it’s funny and sad and way more. Robbie makes for a very believable Tonya, and her heartbreak at being banned from the one thing she’s any good up is very affecting.
Some have said the Australian is too pretty to play Harding, but she delivers a performance that both captures her inner steel and vulnerabilities.
Janney received an Oscar, a BAFTA and Golden Globe for best performance by an actress in a supporting role, and really deserved all those prizes.
LaVona is a totally unsympathetic character; you really hate her but at the same time she is very ironic. The only time she is ever nice to Tonya is when using a hidden recorder to get her daughter to speak about the attack, presumably to sell the tape to the media.
Stan is less plausible as Gillooly, who doesn’t quite manage to come across as being as stupid as he’s meant to be.
During the closing credits, you get to see footage of interviews with the real Tonya, Jeff and Shawn, giving weight to the movie’s claims of veracity.
In truth, it tells a tragic story, but plays it mainly for laughs, particularly with Shawn; the real footage shows how uncannily Hauser has captured him, protesting that he is indeed a counter terrorism expert even in the face of all the evidence that he isn’t.