By Adam Ray Palmer
Today’s review is of a biographical film centering on the country-singing legend Hank Williams. This movie premiered at the last Toronto Film Festival before having a brief release around the UK.
I manage to catch the opinion-polarising biopic at the Phoenix Leicester last week after hearing such differing views.
I’m a sucker for biopics but there is a thin line between a great one and bad one. Clearly, judging by articles around the web, I Saw The Light flirts between the two sides. Now it's my turn to get to the bottom of it all...
I Saw The Light focuses on 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. The biopic is based on the book ‘Hank Williams: The Biography’ by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William (Bill) MacEwen.
We begin the film by meeting the two central protagonists. We have Tom Hiddleston playing Hank Williams and Elizabeth Olsen playing his wife May. We see the pair get married and their life as a duo begins. Issue number one with this film is that we have missed the pivotal years of Hank’s life. We join the story when he is 23 years old and he only lives until 29. He is already famous and playing nightly on the radio. Within 15 minutes of the movie, we see him heavily drinking so already his rise to fame and addiction to alcohol isn't explored or explained.
I Saw The Light is a difficult watch, I completely understand the varying reviews. Two of the most important components Marc Abraham (director) faces when making this biopic is telling an interesting story and making sure momentum is continued. In both these key aspects, he loses his way at times. The staged interviews throughout the run-time are such sequence killers and are literally pointless. The interviews are not even real footage either so they are a waste of time. We don’t know who are interviewing these people and the reason behind them either.
The storytelling aspect is also tarnished slightly. Hank Williams’ life is very interesting but we are never given the full extent to his problems with drugs, marriage and work life. The story is very much chronological which is fine but it quickly glosses over areas that would have significant impact on other scenes. His death is a key sequence that proves my point; the emotion is completely lost because we don’t know the severity of his problems. His chronic health issues, his increasingly troubled mind-set, and his progression as a singer all seem to fall by the wayside.
It may sound like I’m not a fan of this film, but that’s not entirely true. I’m left more frustrated at how much better it could have been. The performances alone are hauntingly good and that is what you remember. Olsen nails her role as May. She’s a strong, independent woman and fully believes in her own singing ability when in fact, she’s not that good. In addition, when tougher scenes arrive, she easily goes toe-to-toe with Hiddleston.
Tom is the real highlight here. He keeps on getting better. He’s really found the essence of Hank Williams, especially in his later and darker part of life. As the film goes on, Tom really gets to grips with the dead-behind-the-eyes feeling that Hank resonates in his latter stages of life. This is most notably in an old testament preach to an audience who are so excited to see him perform. Tom is haunting but more annoyingly, let down by a slow film.
I Saw The Light is not a bad movie, it’s just the finessing of the product that is below average. I feel for Tom and Elizabeth who have clearly done their homework and gave it their all. If they weren’t so good, I would not have had an interest in continuing with ‘ISTL’. In the end, they were the reason I stayed and slightly enjoyed it.
Cineroom’s Rating: 3 Stars
I Saw The Light screened last week at the Phoenix Leicester after a successful nationwide release – certificate 15.