I Saw the Light (2015)

  • Time: 123 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | Music
  • Director: Marc Abraham
  • Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Krumholtz


The story of the country-western singer Hank Williams, who in his brief life created one of the greatest bodies of work in American music. The film chronicles his rise to fame and its tragic effect on his health and personal life.

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  • “I write what I write and I sing what I sing. That’s what I do.” That line, uttered by Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, is the closest thing to insight one will find in I Saw the Light, an unsatisfying slog of a biopic that at least does not skimp on highlighting the gone-too-soon but still highly influential singer-songwriter’s musical legacy.

    Williams was only 29 when he died of heart failure brought on by years of alcohol and prescription pill abuse but, despite the brevity of his life and career, he racked up dozens of hits, among them classics such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Writer-director Marc Abraham takes a traditional approach in his telling, outlining Williams’ personal and professional highs and lows in episodic but linear fashion. Williams is seen getting hitched to his first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), at an Alabama gas station. This is his first marriage, she’s divorced with child and pregnant with ambition. Williams’ mother (Cherry Jones) is none too pleased with Audrey wresting control over his life and career. Neither is the radio station where Williams and his band make a steady living. Audrey keeps pushing to sing alongside him, but she’s no June Carter. He keeps drinking and womanising, which threatens both his marriage and his dream of making it to the Grand Ole Opry.

    Yet make it Williams does with a string of hits that keep flowing from his pen. The film doesn’t concern itself with Williams’ working methods or the inspirational provenance of any of his songs or even why he and his songs were so popular during this particular postwar era. There’s something oddly detached in I Saw the Light. There’s no palpable sense of Williams’ increasing fame save for the random scene or two when he reads that a song of his has hit Number One. Abraham presents each vignette in the same flat and almost dispassionate tone – he may be willfully avoiding hitting the usual beats of a biopic but he does neither his film nor Williams any favours by flatlining the potential drama. Watching the film, one could easily mistake Williams for just another employed musician who had an uncanny knack of screwing up his life.

    Abraham does no better in illuminating Williams’ relationships. Williams was no saint and unfit to be a husband and a father despite his best intentions. Was it that he prioritised his career? Was it that he needed to be cared for but was too selfish to love in return? Was it simply that he couldn’t stand being alone and lonely? If Abraham fails to provide any true and thoughtful answers, he at least creates an intriguing exchange between Williams and Bobbie Jett (Wrenn Schmidt). She’s just told him she’s pregnant and a resigned and weary Williams replies that while he will do what he can to support the child, he doesn’t love her enough to marry her especially since he’s fixing to make the 19-year-old Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson) his second wife. It’s a scene full of quiet heartbreak and Hiddleston conveys both the self-awareness and selfishness that twinned within Williams.

    Hiddleston and Olsen generate a tremendous amount of heat in their scenes together (if anyone ever thinks of remaking Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, they’d make a scorching Brick and Maggie). Olsen is a firecracker and arguably delivers a better performance than Hiddleston. The actor is commanding and there’s no doubting the amount of effort that went into adopting Williams’ distinctive singing style. He exudes an almost predatory magnetism when in the spotlight. He fills in a lot of the blanks in Abraham’s screenplay but unlike Olsen, who exudes a quality of a woman who has lived through a lot in her relatively short life, Hiddleston doesn’t quite shuffle off his polish and refinement to become an authentic honky tonk man.

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