TIFF 2015: Marc Abraham's 'I Saw the Light' Starring Tom Hiddleston
by Marco Cerritos
September 17, 2015
Country music legend Hank Williams was a tortured man plagued by his own success and exuberance. Dying way too young and leaving behind a treasure trove of inspiration, many musicians still credit him to his day. These facts are given a very light touch in Marc Abraham's new biopic I Saw the Light, a movie that tries to encapsulate what made Williams so special but never digs deep enough to get any real answers. British actor Tom Hiddleston slips on a cowboy hat and gives it his all as Williams and the result is a surprising knockout. He is fully devoted to the part so it's a shame the rest of the film can't keep up with him.
I Saw the Light is a title that refers to one of Hank's most beloved songs and it starts, as most biopics do, in the beginning. In this case the year is 1944 and Hank is about to marry his first wife Audrey (played by Elizabeth Olsen) at an Alabama gas station. The two are deeply in love and have no idea of the emotional hurricane in store for both of them. What slowly shows the couple becoming close as newlyweds quickly escalates to Audrey bullying her way into Hank's music. She's opportunistic to the point that she demands they sing together despite her less than stellar vocal talents.
Cut to one of many scenes of the couple fighting and shouting at each other interspersed with quick reenactments of Williams rising to the top of the music charts. Throw in some heavy drug and alcohol abuse as well as the casual womanizing and you've got the traditional formula for most biopics. The film embraces that by-the-numbers formula and the result is a long and unfocused mess.
Writer-director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) does very little to make I Saw the Light come to life the way it should. He crams the screenplay with so much repetition and dramatic filler that this two hour movie feels like an endurance test. Some of the major highlights in Williams' life are examined but most of the movie's focus is on the mundane details and marital tension that served as a real-life backdrop to the man. We get the sense that Hank Williams was an important figure in the music industry but we also knew that before the movie started. The hows and whys behind the persona are what we want to see. That is what would have made I Saw the Light stand out and sadly that is what the filmmakers avoid the most.
Biopics as a genre are difficult to pull off since even the best ones adhere to the same A-B-C structure that have made them ripe for parody. The two highlights in I Saw the Light are huge and save the film from completely going off the deep end. The first are the two lead performances. Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen are electric onscreen together and their scenes are a masterclass in acting. Hiddleston expertly hides his British roots to get into Hank's American persona while Olsen walks a fine line between mysterious and conniving with ease.
The second weapon in its arsenal are the musical scenes with Hiddleston performing Hank's music live. There's no safety net and his voice, while not completely authentic, is still mesmerizing and haunting at the same time. Awards consideration for both leads is justified but the film as a whole is a repetitive exercise.
Marco's TIFF 2015 Rating: C
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