Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones
Directed by: Marc Abraham
Sony Picture Classics
Our score: 3 out of 5 stars
There was a big fuss made last fall by Shenton Hank Williams over the casting of classically trained English actor Tom Hiddleston as his grandfather Hank Sr. Hank3 asserted the country legend should be played by an American who had ‘soul’. It is therefore a smart move that I Saw The Light frees audiences’ doubtful minds about this casting in a gorgeous opening performance of his classic “Cold Cold Heart”. Bathed in a spotlight and shadows, Hiddleston’s Hank is backed by no instrumentals as he croons the classic with all the soul you could ask for. Unfortunately, from this smooth opening, writer-director Marc Abraham launches into a biopic whose rhythm is at times overly choppy. Still, as a showcase for the versatile Hiddleston and fiery Olsen, I Saw the Light impresses.
The structurally episodic film launches straight into Williams’s first marriage to fellow aspiring singer Audrey Mae (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in 1944 before bouncing onto scenes at local dive bars and radio gigs. Abraham skips over Hank’s formative years and we see him with eyes already set on the Grand Ole Opry. That is when they’re not wandering to other women or to the bottom of a bottle. The briefly happy pairing of Audrey Mae and Hank is immediately threatened by Williams’s overbearing mother (Cherry Jones) and Audrey Mae’s desire to share in Hank’s career despite her own lackluster voice. Abraham piles on these personal problems that beset Williams early and heavily before he gradually works in the mentions of Williams’s spina bifida pain which further drove his drug addiction. The trouble with this onslaught of darkness in I Saw the Light is it makes Williams’s untimely passing at age 29 feel like a foregone conclusion with little relief found in his musical achievements.
Thank goodness then for Hiddleston. No stranger to darkness (fresh off of Crimson Peak and about to engage in tv spy thriller “The Night Manager”), he’s magnetic in scenes that require him to rein in his demons–or let them loose. Pity the New York reporter who tries to raise tabloid rumors with Hank or the Hollywood exec who wants him to remove his iconic cowboy hat. He’s particularly chill inducing when invoking Hank’s on stage alter ego “Luke the Drifter,” in a scary recitation to some confused picnic goers. More importantly though he can mine the joy to be found in performing Williams’s work. Yodeling and gyrating–for all intents and purposes flirting with the audience–his striking stage presence goes a long way to selling Williams’s enduring charm despite the emphasis Abraham’s script puts on many terrible relationship choices.
In this arena at least, for most of the film Hiddleston is ably matched by Olsen’s Audrey Mae. A divorcee herself already at the time of their marriage, Audrey Mae is wont to serve Hank the divorce papers when his screwing around becomes too much. Their heated arguments make for some of the most charged interactions in the film, each nailing their southern twangs. More importantly, their tender moments–Hank’s charming as hell plea for Audrey to come back to him, his finding out about impending fatherhood–are truly touching and give the film the heart it needs. As Hank and Audrey Mae drift apart, the chemistry with Olsen is sorely missed. Wrenn Schmidt as Williams’s friend-zoned fling Bobbie Jett briefly rekindles sparks later when Hank’s regretting being a “professional of making a mess of things.” Schmidt is as world weary as Hank in their shared scenes and brings a welcome sense of humor to the ever encroaching darkness of the latter stages of the film.
Said latter stages become riddled with odd choices from Abraham such as increasingly frequent black and white “interviews” or a sudden audio narration whose presence suggests a documentary format we haven’t been privy to for the majority of the film. It undermines the brilliant work of his actors. Here, Hiddleston’s rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” will make you weep. He undoubtedly gets to the heart of Williams’s appeal even as I Saw The Light struggles to illuminate it properly.
I Saw the Light is now playing in New York, LA and Nashville, it expands nationally this Friday.