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Margot Robbie plays disgraced former figure skater Tonya Harding in the movie I, Tonya.The Globe and Mail

Before she agreed to take on the role of one of the most despised athlete of the 1990s, Margot Robbie first wanted to sit across from Tonya Harding.

She flew to Portland, Ore., where the former figure skater now lives and works as a landscaper.

"It wasn't something I wanted to do from an acting standpoint," Robbie said shortly after the resultant gonzo biopic, I, Tonya, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. "I sat with her on a human level."

Twenty-three years ago, when she was lowering the bar on "poor sportsmanship" so low it was tunnelling, very few people were willing to extend any human understanding toward Harding. In fairness, she didn't make it easy.

Before the internet helped create a culture of boilerplate apologies, Harding was the miscreant who would not bend an inch to public pressure. Logic and a trail of evidence told you that she played some role in the baton assault on her teammate, rival and occasional friend, Nancy Kerrigan, but Harding continued to dodge responsibility. She remains slippery on the subject to this day.

There is a powerful need in the biography of villainy to either tear the subject down further or build them back up. I, Tonya – a coarse, Scorsesian romp through Harding's unlikely rise and flaming fall – succeeds because it does neither. It doesn't judge, and it doesn't excuse. It shows you what happened, often from multiple and contradictory angles. Like all great tragedies, it's also funny.

In its midst stands Harding, sneering out at the audience. She was the victim (of a shrew of a mother and an erratic, violent marriage) who refused to be victimized.

Robbie portrays her in the same way Clint Eastwood played his recurrent role of Unnamed Stranger Who's Just Arrived in Town – as an American badass.

Much has been made of the fact that when she first read the script, Robbie believed it to be fiction. It also felt that way at the time. The assault on Kerrigan was so ill-conceived, so bungled, so comically stupid, that even when you were watching the frenzy that followed, you couldn't quite credit it all as real.

Mostly what you felt was an uncomfortably personalized anger, coupled with malicious glee. Someone who really deserved it was going to get it, and you were going to watch it happen live at the Olympics.

That moment – Harding's desultory eighth-place skate in Lillehammer – was an anti-climax. She broke a lace and cried. It was hard to hate her then without hating yourself as well.

In the end, Harding wasn't a monster, but rather a middling skater and unlikeable person who'd never really had a chance. At anything.

Robbed of its prime-time auto-da-fé, the pack then turned on the other half of the equation, Kerrigan, and tore her apart.

Shakespeare wrote this script 400 years ago. We just keep restaging it.

It was also, in its way, the first mobbing of the modern era. None of it mattered very much, or at all, but people became deeply invested in taking sides. There were lashes and backlashes. It went on forever, and never quite resolved itself. In the end, everyone was punished and no one was happy.

Robbie injected some of that idea into the role as well. The Australian star of The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad is one of the most famous people alive, a pleasantly plain-spoken type constantly pressed for comment on all manner of subjects. Does she ever fear saying or doing the wrong thing?

Robbie had been sitting up ramrod straight and suddenly collapsed toward the table, as if releasing a pent-up anxiety.

"A hundred per cent," she said. "It does feel unfair to me that I could do everything right, for years do everything right, and then I step one toe out of line and everyone will turn on me."

She pointed a finger, somewhere between teasing and serious, melding Harding's perspective with her own.

"She gets to say her bit, but the journalist gets to write it. I understand that frustration so much. We could do this whole interview and at the end you can write whatever you want about it. I'm powerless."

That is the fear that animates I, Tonya. It makes a familiar story even more relevant now than it was at the time, and it is not particular to Hollywood stars.

Some day you will do something wrong, and other people will get to write it.

I, Tonya opened Dec. 22 in Toronto, and expands to other Canadian cities in January.

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