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‘I, Tonya’ blends humor and pathos at TIFF premiere with Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Among the most anticipated premieres of the Toronto International Film Festival’s first weekend was Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” starring Margot Robbie as notorious figure skater Tonya Harding. In part the anticipation was so high simply because few people knew what to expect from the movie: Would it be a satirical farce about tabloid-sordid events or a more dramatic look at Harding’s troubled life? The answer is yes.

Written by Steven Rogers and also starring Sebastian Stan as Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden, the movie finds unforeseen nuance in a story that many might assume they already know too well.

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival 2017 »

“I, Tonya” opens with a card that declares it to be based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with Harding and Gillooly, and goes on to make the most of the conceit. Events unfold and are then smudged just enough by obviously unreliable narrators to cast doubt as to who really knew what and when regarding the infamous attack on Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan.

The film’s unusual tone finds plenty of wicked humor in the story but explores a deep, unexpected sense of pathos as Harding was rejected by the establishment of figure skating for her working-class background and hard-charging style. The way in which events spiral beyond Harding’s control shifts from absurdity to tragedy, as Robbie conveys the disappointment of watching a lifelong dream fizzle out.

In a Q&A after the film, Gillespie said it was Rogers’ script that drew him to the project, as “it was such a dance between obviously the humor and the emotion … to take these characters we know so well in the public eye and really get a deeper sense of who they are as people and what motivated them — and the choices and the mistakes they made along the way — just made for a really compelling story.”

Robbie noted that she was struck by how the movie “kind of became a really weird love story.”

She added of shooting one scene of many in which Harding and Gillooly argue and fight, “that ended up being my favorite scene because I forgot that I was acting completely…. Nothing makes me more exhilarated, when I genuinely forget that, I forget where I am.”

The U.S. rights to the movie were initially acquired by Miramax in 2016, but have been put back on the market at the festival.

The film would be a prime candidate for any distributor looking to bolster its awards season slate, as Fox Searchlight did last year when it acquired Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” out of the festival, and went on to earn an Oscar nomination for star Natalie Portman. If “I, Tonya” sneaks into this year’s race, Robbie, Stan and — in particular — Janney would all be considered competitive in acting categories, as would Rogers’ script in original screenplay.

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