Unlike those who have played him in the past (strapping, vigorous George Hamilton in 1964’s entirely risible Your Cheatin’ Heart, and Canadian country singer Sneezy Waters in the acclaimed 1980 musical fantasy Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave), Tom Hiddleston resembles Williams to an impressive degree in the new biopic I Saw The Light, with the addition of brown contacts completing the convincing physical aspect of his impersonation.

The film does away with any of the usual biopic preamble about Williams’ childhood, opening with his marriage to his first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), at a time before he had found any success (he and his band are shown toiling in the trenches of country radio: a 6:30 AM weekday morning slot heard by farmers).

The film focuses on the conflicts in Williams’ life (his tempestuous relationship with his wife, his wife’s and mother’s mutual loathing, disagreements with country music’s hierarchy, his publisher, and his band members) to the exclusion of much else, apart from Williams’ fixation on getting on to the stage of the ‘high church of country music’, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

I saw the LightSurprisingly for a movie so focused on conflict, it’s hard to feel very bothered about any of it, or to feel any particular sympathy for Williams or the other characters. Audrey is a grasping shrew and frustrated singer who possesses no talent, but demands her husband’s support to further her ambitions, which he provides despite opposition from everyone and anyone else. Hank’s mother clearly wants to retain control of his finances (and constantly runs down Audrey to him), and the other women that the constantly philandering Williams dallies with seem to have their eye on his wallet as well.

There’s little attempt made at insight into what drove him to create his haunted, electrifying music. The script steers clear of the genre’s greatest failing, the imposition of a pat narrative arc to ‘explain’ or define the basis for creative gifts, but the film can’t entirely resist trite reduction. In a scene in which Hank is interviewed by a New York journalist, Hank’s clearly in no mood to be grilled, he snaps that everyone has darkness in them, and it’s his job to shine a light on that by sharing his own darkness with the audience.

I saw the Light  1

It’s difficult to say just who the film is aimed at. The average country music fan will probably be put off by the complete absence of contemporary country music stereotypes, as Williams wasn’t about flag waving, good old boys or ‘family values’ (except for his little heard Luke the Drifter recordings, which showcased his interest in gospel and spoken word music). Viewers unfamiliar with Williams’ work who aren’t country fans will likely wonder what all the fuss is about as the power of the man’s music never comes across, largely because Hiddleston does his own singing, and while he has a pleasant if unremarkable voice, the raw, tormented soulfulness that Williams conveyed just isn’t there.

I Saw The Light is a sincere attempt at an honest, downbeat portrayal of a great artist, but with the power of the subject’s art nowhere in evidence we’re left with a dreary rendering of a somewhat pathetic life.

TIFF 2015 review I Saw The Light
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I've worked in entertainment product development and sales & marketing in the U.S., UK and my native Canada for over 20 years, and have been a part of many changes during that time (I've overseen home entertainment releases on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray). I've also written and commentated about film and music for many outlets over the years. The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins, some time in the mid-60s: I was hooked. My love of the moving image remains as strong as ever.