Director: Marc Abraham
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen
Written by Fiona Underhill
There is really only one reason to see this biopic of country music star Hank Williams, and that is Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston is having a career-high at the moment, with ‘Crimson Peak’, ‘High-Rise’ and BBC series ‘The Night Manager’ all being released in the last year. Now, ‘I Saw the Light’ does stand out, because instead of playing an upper-class Englishman, Hiddleston is playing an American country music star. Apparently with little musical background, Hiddleston has achieved something pretty incredible here – playing guitar and crooning in Williams’ distinctive style inch-perfectly.
However, you can always tell when something might be “up” with a film. It was made a long time ago, before any of the work mentioned above. It has only just been released, here and in the US, perhaps to try and ride on the “high” of ‘The Night Manager’ etc. This can always back-fire though, with audiences getting sick of a glut of films starring one actor. This happened to Ryan Gosling, when ‘The Ides of March’, ‘Crazy Stupid Love’ and ‘Drive’ were all released within a couple of months. Fortunately for Hiddleston, his array of films are varied enough, with very different target audiences, so this shouldn’t be the case.
Unfortunately, the film itself does not live up to Hiddleston’s central performance. It is desperate to replicate the success of films like ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Ray’, but just does not have the drama of either of those stories. ‘I Saw the Light’ starts with Williams’ marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), so we skip Williams’ childhood. There is some conflict created by the fact that Audrey is trying to be a singer herself, but she is not a particularly likeable or interesting character (unlike June Carter Cash), so any empathy is lost.
We see some of the biopic clichés of “succumbing to the pressures of life on the road” – drink, drugs and women. However, you never feel like you are more than scratching the surface of this man. Williams’ creative side as a songwriter is also not fully explored – you don’t see his inspirations (other than a garage door opener – yes, really) or get any sense of what drives him. The dichotomy between the cheery tunes that Williams yodels at hayrides, and the dark side he clearly has, is not explored fully either. Only at the very end, when a clearly shattered and broken Williams starts to sing ‘Your Cheating Heart’, the camera pans back to reveal his wife in the room – is it supposed to be aimed at her? Really, he should be aiming it at himself. This moment, like so many others, is brushed over and gone for good. Always leaving more questions than answers.
Williams was beset by health problems – spina bifida, a heart condition and alcoholism, and perhaps because of this, he never looks like he’s enjoying performing. Is it fame and money that is pushing him or the need for a creative outlet? As an audience you feel as if you are constantly searching for what drives this man and you end up coming out frustrated. Some interesting social questions are raised though. When Williams marries Audrey, she is divorced and already has a child. When that marriage breaks up, he gets one women pregnant and marries another, in quick succession. All of this is happening in the 1940s and 1950s, in the “Bible Belt” of America. I would be interested to know what Williams’ fans thought about all of this, along with the drinking and drug-taking. Was Williams himself religious? There is a brief mention of him listening to gospel music in church as a child and the title song is almost a hymn. But again: no insight is given.
Unfortunately, even the presence of Bradley Whitford (one of my favourite actors) could not salvage my interest in this film. It’s incredibly frustrating, because you feel as if there is an intriguing story there to tell, but the writing, direction and editing has badly let Williams down. Yes – Hiddleston’s singing and playing is to be admired, but you can see that in a five minute highlight reel in any old interview – you don’t need to have a dull two hour film wrapped around it. Even the inevitable tragic ending left me cold, and it doesn’t take much to get me crying at films. What a shame.