TIFF 2015: I Saw The Light Review
Legendary country singer Hank Williams led a frenzied and tumultuous life, haunted by his many personal demons. Even though his career was short lived, he made significant contributions to music that still reverberate today. Director Marc Abraham’s film I Saw The Light is a portrait of this man during his rise to fame, looking at the personal moments that gave him the inspiration for his 11 number one singles in six years, and what ultimately led to his early death. Williams was troubled and unfortunately so is this film.
Played valiantly by Tom Hiddleston, the film begins early in Hank Williams’ career, focusing on him being a struggling artist, working as a singer on a radio show, and his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen). The marital tensions begin early, coming fast and heavy. Audrey is an aspiring singer herself with an eye for business and is trying to pry herself into Hank’s career. With the success that comes from his first hit single, comes a greater strain on their relationship. Hank is frequently on the road for long stretches and both are tempted by the many indulgences around them. Health problems and philandering ways lead Hank to alcohol and drug abuse which causes his marriage to fall apart. Over the ensuing years, Hank battles these demons in an attempt to get his life in control for his children and the women around him. Eventually his hard living catches up to him and his heart gives out, dying at the age of 29.
The real standout component of this film is Hiddleston’s singing. His voice is crisp and strong, delivering his performances with conviction. The film opens with a simple and haunting scene of Hiddleston sitting alone on a stool singing without any musical backup. He is believable and has great tone. This is carried throughout the film in every one of his performance scenes. Olsen also does her best to deliver a respectable portrayal of Audrey. She walks a fine line between being caring and compassionate and being controlling and manipulative. However, despite their best efforts to work with the material they have been given, this is not enough to save a film that suffers from poor writing and lacklustre direction.
During the Q&A after the film, the director made a comment that he wanted this film to be a look at the moments in Hank’s life that made him who he was and a look at why he sang about what he did. Looking back, this is an apt description of what the film was. Regrettably this approach has created a film devoid of depth and emotional resonance. It comes across simply as a collection of the highlights of Williams’ life strung together like a news reel. It does not allow the viewer the chance to get to know these characters with any real meaning, bouncing through the years at a quick pace from one short key scene to the next. Hiddleston and Olsen attempt to raise the quality of the film with their performances but in the end the film comes across as a flat and superficial look at this man’s legacy.
The film came into the festival with high expectations and talk of possible Oscar nominations. While Tom Hiddleston is definitely a shining beacon in the film with his quality singing, the end result is a disappointing misfire. Better screenwriting, with perhaps focus on fewer defining moments or a different approach to the material, could have given us a top quality biopic film but this film will not be that. The most surprising element to come out of this film is what a wonderful voice Hiddleston has. With this, we can only hope that he will be inspired to pursue more projects that demonstrate this new element of the raw talent that exudes from this man.