I Saw the Light review: Tom Hiddleston's exceptional performance is wasted in a dull and listless film

It’s a fine piece of acting but the film itself has nothing like the emotional depth of even one of Hank’s lesser songs

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 04 May 2016 13:54
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Marc Abraham, 124 mins, starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson

I Saw The Light gives us an exceptional central performance - but one that is entombed in a very dull and listless film. Tom Hiddleston plays country music legend Hank Williams, the “hillbilly Shakespeare” as he was nicknamed, who wrote a string of classic songs but died aged only 29.

There is a scene midway through the film which sums up just how utterly lacking in drama it becomes. When he is successful and has some money, Hank is shown sneaking out of a party at his home so that he can play with the remote control device that opens and shuts the garage door. The filmmakers spend a considerable time on this scene, as if it is very revealing of his inner character - he was a man who liked turning things on and off.

What the film conspicuously fails to address is just how a boy from a humble background in Alabama turned into such a prodigiously talented singer-songwriter. William’s childhood is skirted over almost entirely. He drank too much, he wasn’t faithful to his wife, Audrey Sheppard Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), he had a bad back and a bossy mum - and that is about as much in the way of story as we get.

Predictably, by far the most powerful moments in the film are when Williams (or Hiddleston who did all his own singing) is performing his searing, beautifully written songs about love and betrayal. It is in his music that he expresses himself most honestly and most fiercely. Off-stage, all he wants to do is shoot at bottles and play with the garage door. As he tells us at one stage, he writes what he writes and he sings what he sings because “that is what I do.”

Writer-director Marc Abraham deals in cursory fashion with Hanks’s attempts to secure dates at the Grand Ole Oprey and with his brief foray to Hollywood (he is shown meeting studio boss Dore Schary.) Hank is an inscrutable and very private character, who always seems to be hiding beneath his cowboy hat. The one moment he talks frankly is when a journalist interviews him - but even here he quickly realises that the journalist is not to be trusted and so quickly clams up again. In order to bridge gaps in the storyline, Abraham uses the device of a black and white interview with his old manager Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford.)

I Saw The Light MovieBites

Elizabeth Olsen, in a break from Avengers duty, does her best as Hank’s neglected wife who has music ambitions of her own, but it is a thankless role. She is left at home clutching the baby. Hank loses interest in her and so, eventually, do the filmmakers.

As Hank, Hiddleston doesn’t just sing the songs with an uncanny feeling and precision. He also hints at his character’s inner turbulence - his mix of boorishness and extreme sensitivity. It’s a fine piece of acting but the film itself has nothing like the emotional depth of even one of Hank’s lesser songs.

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