The British actor trades Loki’s horns for a Stetson hat as Hank Williams in the new musical biopic. Does the film soar or sink? Owen Gleiberman gives his view.

The star of a biopic doesn’t have to resemble the person they are playing to give a convincing performance. Yet certain pieces of casting feel intensely, physically right, and that’s the case with Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light. This remarkable British actor, whose career has already encompassed roles as diverse as the hipster vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, the tragic war-damaged lover in The Deep Blue Sea and the villainous Loki from The Avengers, has always had a disarming severity to his performances. And it matches up perfectly with Hank Williams’ slightly spooky Southern magnetism. Hiddleston plays him with cold black eyes, a ghostly pallor and a thin-lipped smile that lights up when Hank is on stage without making you forget what a haunted man he is. That rictus grin makes him look like he’s already getting ready for the afterlife.

The trouble is, the film itself is an unholy mess

Hank Williams didn’t invent country music, but he more or less shaped the genre as we know it: the songs of spangled heartbreak that can sound deceptively like ditties, coupled with the proto-rockstar mystique that was embodied in his alcoholic self-destruction – he died, in 1953, aged 29. His story as told in I Saw the Light is  country and western’s formative myth.

The trouble is, the film itself is an unholy mess. Its writer-director, Marc Abraham, has strung together the raw material for a drama about Williams – the bad marriages, the drinking, the too many nights on the road. What he hasn’t done is given it shape or coherence. He shoots everything in naturalistic light and lets scenes plod on. At first, I thought his method might be promising, but before long it starts to look like Abraham simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s not just that he hasn’t shaped the material; it’s that he’s failed to figure out who Hank Williams is. He gives us a collection of signs in place of a character.

A cold, cold film

Early in the film, Williams is on stage at a honky tonk when he’s attacked by an angry audience member, and the back injury that results is a major source of his demons. He’s in constant pain, and is looking for any way he can to medicate himself. Williams’ love of whiskey, however, takes on a life of its own, and though the movie often shows him with a glass in his hand, it never spends a minute trying to get inside the psychology of a boozehound. What did the drinking mean to him? Was he feeling joy or anguish when he was drunk? I Saw the Light views everything that was passionate and tormented about Hank Williams from a distance. He’s not a flawed hero we’re asked to identify with, like the damaged musical geniuses of Ray, Walk the Line, Get On Up or Love and Mercy. He’s a specimen of dysfunction we must stare at from the outside.

Abraham lays out the incidents as if he were dramatising a Wikipedia entry

It’s a very strange movie, in that it’s trying for a tone of raw authenticity over biopic slickness, a choice you can applaud in theory – yet this is the rare case when I wanted more slickness. Abraham hasn’t done the basic work of interpreting Williams’ life; he lays out the incidents as if he were dramatising a Wikipedia entry. Williams’ relationship with his first wife, Audrey Mae (Elizabeth Olsen), is a tussle of love and hate, but we never quite get the flow of it. Olsen gives a potent performance, showing us how her affection for Hank fought with her pride. But is the problem with this relationship his womanising, which we hear about but almost never see? Or is it that Williams wasn’t ‘‘present’’ even when he was there? It depends on which scene you’re watching.

Hiddleston did all his own singing, and he’s extraordinary, nailing the yodel-yelps of a song like Lovesick Blues. Yet what’s missing from I Saw the Light is how the great country music that Hank Williams wrote and sang erupted from inside him. At one point, he talks about what the songs mean to his fans: they’re a mirror, he says, a way of easing people’s troubles by letting them see the dark sides of themselves reflected. But wasn’t the music also a kind of salvation for Williams? Yes, in the end, his life was a tragedy, but there’s hardly a moment in the movie when it makes us feel how, and why, he was driven to see the light. 

★★☆☆☆

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