Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt.
Directed by: Marc Abraham
Cert: 15A Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: 6th May 2016
You can tell an awful lot about I Saw The Light by its opening credits. Hank Williams (a slim Tom Hiddleston) sits alone on a stool under a spotlight as he sings. The camera slowly revolves around him, half in shadow, half in light, his cowboy hat hanging low, covering his eyes. A thin silhouette with a beautiful voice, each note carefully measured. It’s a performance rather than an insight and that setup haunts the rest of the film like a spectre. Rather than getting a true sense of what made the musical ‘genius’ tick, we get a performance of him, one we can’t quite connect to – strangely distant, holding us at arms length.
Based on the book by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen and adapted and directed by Marc Abraham, the film centres on six years of William’s life up until his untimely death at the age of 29. It begins as he marries Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), a divorced mother-of-one who has singing aspirations of her own. Clashing with Williams’ mother (the excellent Cherry Jones) who has steered her son on the road to success, the air is rife for trouble between them but unfortunately it’s only touched on as the first third of the film focuses more on Audrey and Hank’s marriage. Herein lies the problem. There’s a distinct lack of chemistry to be had and Olsen, who can bring a soft ethereal presence to her roles, is perhaps miscast as his pushy wife. Audrey does have a lot to contend with married to a womanising alcoholic but it’s difficult to understand, after they argue, why he would want her back and she him.
Though Hiddleston’s accent and singing voice are both spot on, you can sense the labour behind it. Having so recently graced our living rooms in BBC’s The Night Manager it takes a good half hour to separate Hiddleston from his clipped English tones and let him become the ‘son of Alabama’. He relaxes a bit as he gets to show his darker side and though the story and script are lacking any hugely dramatic scenes, he does carry it along. From a music point of view, Williams’ biggest hits do get an airing but the film is peppered with hits rather than being an immersive look at his music. In a scene where Hank finds out his record has made it to No. 1 in the charts, there’s an interesting dynamic between him and his band and you wish that that could have been explored more.
The best scene in the film, notable for what it says about Williams in so little words, is Hank having a conversation with on-off girlfriend Bobbie (Wrenn Schmidt) as the two sit smoking cigarettes. It feels real and heartfelt from both of them and perfectly sums up Hank’s attitude to life and marriage. Comparisons to Walk The Line are inevitable and sadly I Saw The Light can’t compete with it when its comes to narrative insight. Fans of Hiddleston won’t be disappointed by his vocal prowess here but perhaps they needed a stronger tale to hit the emotional notes of the story of another lost legend.