Maybe it’s just my cold, cold heart talking, but there’s something fundamental missing in I Saw the Light, the new film about Hank Williams. This is not the fault of Tom Hiddleston, who does a fine job channeling the singer even though he’s about as Southern as a plate of scones and a cuppa. Hiddleston’s Britishness drew a few howls of protest from some corners but turns out to be a nonfactor. English he may be, but he’s a versatile actor, as such films as Crimson Peak, Only Lovers Left Alive and The Avengers franchise can attest. As Williams, he radiates the performer’s charm. His wide grin and cheeky winks while singing hits like Lovesick Blues are a charismatic siren song, his voice yelping those famous near-yodels with precision.
I Saw the Light, though, doesn’t live up to Hiddleston’s efforts; it’s shallow and disjointed, handicapped by a weak, cliche-sodden script (“Son, there are no short cuts to the Opry!”) and an inconsistent framework (sometimes it’s shot as a documentary, sometimes it’s not). Directed and adapted for the screen by Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius), the movie falls victim to the usual biopic malaise: It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about a life that was far from ordinary.
The Alabama-born Williams was a significant American songwriter and a towering figure in country music history, penning such classics as Hey, Good Lookin’, Move It On Over and Your Cheatin’ Heart — all still bar band staples. He rose to Grand Ole Opry fame in the 1940s, then, fueled by booze and prescription pain medication, he tumbled out of favor, dying at the appallingly young age of 29 in 1953.
The movie hones in on this rise and fall, eagerly focusing on Williams’ alcoholism and drug use (chronic back pain plagued him, too) as well as his stormy relationship with his wife and manager Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen). Their marriage is tested by creative tensions — Audrey thinks she should be allowed to sing on his radio show while everybody with ears disagrees — and eventually his womanizing. Once their marriage dissolves and Olsen more or less disappears from the screen, the film stumbles to its abrupt ending with only one poignant scene to recommend it: a desperate, strung-out Williams wailing his new song — Your Cheatin’ Heart — with a sharp whiff of self loathing.
The distance between the cocky charmer of Lovesick Blues and this depressed, broken man on a cheap sofa is shocking, and the moment is one of the film’s handful of memorable ones. But I Saw the Light never puts Williams’ music into any kind of context, failing even to explain his dark alter ego — “Luke the Drifter” — in a satisfactory way. We get no real sense of the country music world or what fired the musical imagination of the public at the time. Williams’ work exists in a vacuum here, his death a sad afternote that never really registers on a larger scale.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson.
Director: Marc Abraham.
Screenwriter: Marc Abraham. Based on the book by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwan.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 123 minutes. Brief language, brief sexuality, nudity. Playing at: area theaters.