Can Margot Robbie Make Us Root for Tonya Harding?

By Daniel Barna

The biggest challenge for Margot Robbie heading into I,Tonya—the jet black biopic in which she plays the infamous figure skater Tonya Harding—wasn’t learning how to master the triple Lutz jump. They have stunt doubles for that kind of stuff. Robbie was tasked with making us root her character. That’s the real Olympian feat.

More than two decades after her involvement in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan ahead of the 1994 Winter Olympics, Harding remains one of the most reviled figures in American sports. She went from force of nature to garish villain to national punch line in a flash—and boy were there a lot of flashes.

But as the first teaser suggests, Harding isn’t the bad guy here. In fact, she had very little to do with the incident that left Kerrigan crippled. Our vitriol is meant to be aimed at her abusive mother (Allison Janney) and her controlling husband (Sebastian Stan). They’re the real bad guys.

Word out of Toronto, where the film premiered last month before being scooped up by Neon for a hefty $5 million, is that Robbie pulls it off. The usually sunny Aussie actress reportedly loses herself in the role and is virtually unrecognizable in the teaser. Maybe it’s the teased bangs and the gaudy eye makeup. Or maybe it’s the fact that since breaking out as the ostentatious Brooklyn housewife in 2014’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie has established herself as one of our most versatile young actresses and someone with a real gift for accents.

Here, she ditches the Brooklyn accent that she perfected in Wolf and then adjusted for Suicide Squad in favor of a faint hillbilly twang. David Ehrlich of Indiewire wrote that Robbie’s performance will make you care about Harding “for the first time in a long time,” while the film itself “will make you sympathize with Tonya Harding for the first time.” Vulture’s David Edelstein went a step further: “I came out dabbing at my tears, thinking, “Where’s Tonya? I want to see her face when she gets a standing ovation. “I have to admit that I went into the Toronto International Film Festival premiere expecting an evil little scheming white-trash I, Claudius and came out dabbing at my tears, thinking, “Where’s Tonya? I want to see her face when she gets a standing ovation,” he wrote.

The rapturous praise for Robbie’s performance has made her in an instant Oscar frontrunner in this year’s stacked Best Actress race. If the Craig Gillespie-directed film is as well received with audiences as it has been with critics, it will be interesting to see whether or not the real Harding emerges from her self-imposed exile and embraces her public redemption. And why wouldn’t she? It looks like Robbie’s already done all the heavy lifting.

I, Tonya hits theaters on December 8. Watch the teaser here.