Miscast and cratered with missed opportunity, I Saw the Light - a biopic of country-and-western legend Hank Williams - offers the feeblest kind of costume drama, where the costumes have more impact than the drama and where the period details serve only as distraction, reminding audiences that things looked different back then and not much else.
"He didn't give a damn if you liked him or not," the music publishing mogul Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) says in an interview for a doc-within-the-movie - a tired narrative device, to say the least. By the end of this lived-hard-died-young biography, it feels like director Marc Abraham didn't give much of a damn, either.
That's probably not fair, but the filmmaker never finds the heart, nor soul, of the man. Episodes from a life of performing on little ol' radio stations and the Grand Ole Opry, of drinking, womanizing, and driving all over the place, are served up with efficiency, but little else.
Abraham has employed Tom Hiddleston - the English actor better known as Loki, the Marvel Cinematic Universe nemesis and sibling of Thor - to play Williams. In his natty Stetson, with a guitar slung over his shoulders, Hiddleston may walk the Williams walk (a walk hampered by a chronic spinal affliction), but the haunted ache that filled his songs is nowhere to be found. The performance is strictly surface.
I Saw the Light uses Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William Macewen as its main source. And the film uses the Williams songbook, of course ("Hey Good Lookin'," "Why Don't You Love Me," "Move It On Over," and other yodel-loping classics), sung by Hiddleston in a passable twang.
Cherry Jones plays Lillie Williams, the mother who cast a watchful shadow over her son and collected the receipts at the door. Elizabeth Olsen is Audrey Sheppard, the Alabama lass Williams married in 1944 in a gas station. The station's owner, also the town's justice of the peace, presided.
The marriage scene comes early in I Saw the Light. The tantrums, the booze, the jealousy, the competition (Audrey fancied herself a singer, too) come soon thereafter.
I Saw the Light
Directed by Marc Abraham. With Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, and Cherry Jones. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 mins.
Parent’s guide: R (profanity, sex, nudity, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.