Despite a beautiful performance from Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, Marc Abraham’s I Saw The Light can’t quite lift the country music icon out of the dark.
The Big Countryby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
That most English of actors Tom Hiddleston may seem an unlikely choice for the role of Hank Williams, that most iconic of country musicians from Alabama. Certainly he has the tall, lean physical resemblance but, amazingly, he also inhabits the persona, the drawl, the lazy hillbilly charm and even his singing, where he gives an impressive rendition of Williams’ hits – including among many Lovesick Blues, Jambalaya, Hey, Good Lookin’ and, of course, I Saw The Light. The list goes on and on, so many of his songs still familiar because they have been covered extensively over the years by other artists.
But his exceptional performance doesn’t prevent this biopic from seeming overlong as it plods through Williams’ brief six-year chart-topping career before his death from a combination of drink and drugs. Director and screenwriter Marc Abraham (Flash Of Genius) concentrates on Williams’ personal dramas, his controlling mother (Cherry Jones), his on-off first marriage to the fiercely ambitious Audrey (excellent Elizabeth Olsen), who despite her inferior singing voice wants to share the stage limelight with him, and second wife Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson). Though we hear his hits, as interpreted by Hiddleston, there’s not enough insight into him and his talent, the sources of his inspiration and what made him such a ground-breaking musical icon.
Abraham uses the device of reimagined black-and-white interviews with Williams’ long-suffering manager Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) to fill in the gaps in the story, since he skirts around dramatising some scenes that might have been more effective seen on screen. Williams finally achieved his ambition of playing at the Grand Ole Opry but in the end his unreliability and his reliance towards the end on a bogus doctor and his poisonous prescriptions sent his career into a downward slide, though he still remained as popular as ever.
Williams died suddenly of heart failure at the age of only 29 in the back of a Cadillac on his way to give a performance in Charleston, West Virginia. His funeral in 1953 in his home town of Montgomery was a huge event attended by 25,000 people and the film closes with actual amateur movie footage taken at the time. But though there are “steel guitars and weeping fiddles” a-plenty, as a final comment sums up, and despite the good performances throughout, the film still feels like a missed opportunity to get to the heart of its intriguing subject.
I Saw The Light is released on 6th May 2016 in the UK