Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as Hank Williams in director Marc Abraham’s “I Saw the Light.”
He doesn’t so much portray Williams as inhabit him, so that a mere few minutes into the film, we already accept Hiddleston as Williams. He’s doing his own stunts, too – singing in a convincingly warm and nasally plaint and making the proper chord shapes on his acoustic guitar.
Hiddleston’s is a triumphant performance, unquestionably. Sadly, it’s also a wasted performance, for “I Saw the Light” is not a great film.
Why Abraham chose to focus on boilerplate “Behind the Music”-style melodrama, instead of digging into the elements of Williams’ character that made him the greatest country music singer and songwriter ever, is anyone’s guess. But what we get with “I Saw the Light” is all surface. Williams is written as a hopeless drunk with a serious woman problem. None of this is news. In fact, it’s all right there in “Hank Williams: The Biography,” by Colin Escott, George Merritt and Bill MacEwen, the book that gave “I Saw the Light” its basis.
Things start promisingly, as we are presented with Williams performing a heart-rending a capella version of “Cold, Cold Heart,” as the camera seems to float above and around him. The gorgeous lambency of the shot suggests the singer is suspended in a dream state beyond space and time. It’s an arresting sequence. It’s also the best three minutes of the movie.
From there, we watch Williams as he does everything in his power to drown his immense ambition and talent in a sea of whiskey, as his equally ambitious wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) commences what will be a relentless stream of whining and moaning regarding her husband’s promise to feature her singing in his performances. Audrey, it’s made clear, is just not as talented as her husband, and she makes him suffer for that fact. Immensely.
This is about all we’re going to get from Abraham’s film, plot-wise. From here on out, it’s all variations on a theme that Williams is a hopeless drunk, Audrey is no good for him, and he’s no good for her, either. Cherry Jones as Williams’ hectoring stage mother is a factor throughout, but the effect her constant hectoring has on her son is never made clear. Perhaps it was just one more reason for him to get fall-down hammered.
What’s missing is anything resembling context. Why did Williams start drinking? Where did his immense talent come from? Who gave him his first guitar? How did he hook up with Audrey in the first place? Does he drink in part to numb his chronic back pain, or did the drinking cause the chronic back pain? We are never told.
We end up longing for Hiddleston to take to the stage or the studio to sing and play, for it’s these moments and these alone that make “I Saw the Light” bearable. The musical sequences are connected by a thread of country music clichés – scenes involving hard drinking, womanizing and endless tears in countless beers, all leading without any earned sense of inevitability toward Williams’ death in the back of a car at the age of 29. It’s frankly depressing.
It is a matter of record that Williams lived hard, suffered immensely, died young and endured a tragic life. The reason we are still talking about him and not about the countless others who lived similarly awful lives is because of the enduring majesty of his populist poetry and his gift with a melody. There is a poignant sadness running through Williams’ best work. But where did his ability to craft transcendent art out of personal suffering come from?
Despite Hiddleston’s bravura performance, “I Saw the Light” fails to shed any light on the life of the enigmatic Williams.
I Saw the Light
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford.
Rating: R, for language, alcoholism.
The Lowdown: A beautifully acted but under-written life of Hank Williams fails to live up to the complexity of its subject matter.