When the movie first opened, I was captured with Hank Williams (Hiddleston) singing “Cold, Cold Heart” without accompaniment and the chiaroscuro effect in the scene. The mood was just right, and it was deeply moving. Unfortunately, two basic flaws in I Saw the Light emerged soon after, which I attribute to Marc Abraham’s screenplay and direction. He has primarily worked as a producer without much experience in writing and direction, hence, the movie sags almost every time there is dialog. It doesn’t matter whether the conversation is between husband and wife in intimate moments or band members talking to one another or to agents—he puts the audience to sleep. I marveled at how such an interesting person’s life could be made boring.
The other problem I had with the film is the number of scenes where neither the issue nor the personalities involved are explored; they’re simply left unresolved. A particular example is Hank and his agent Fred Rose (Whitford) visiting the MGM Studio, and their host wants Hank to take off his hat. Hank refuses, and we don’t know why it’s so important to the MGM producer or to Hank. We don’t even know whether he actually took it off or didn’t. And we don’t know whether the incident ruined Hank’s chance to be supported by MGM. With so many of such scenes in a film, it becomes unsettling.
Hank Williams was decidedly a fascinating, complex person with a markedly eventful life, and whatever interest is maintained in the movie is because we’re curious about him and want o understand him and because Hiddleston aced the role. Even though we’re presented with event after event in his life, it’s more like a chronicle; there is not much exploration into Hank’s character in the larger sense of the word that would essentially help us understand him.
On the other hand, Tom Hiddleston has done the seemingly impossible, converting his British accent into American country, learning to sing on pitch and play the guitar (tutored by Rodney Crowell), and moving his body like a person with spina bifida—all for this movie. I had to smile when in an interview he said that he had heard a few Hank Williams’ songs before he got the role, but was more intrigued with the word ‘honky tonk’; he had no idea what it meant, but he loved the sound of it. Hiddleston put on the Williams persona so completely and convincingly, it fit like a body suit.
The talents of other main actors were fine supports: Elizabeth Olsen as the disillusioned but shallow wife; Bradley Whitford as the agent-like-a-father Fred Rose; and Cherry Jones as the cloying, possessive mother of Hank. I had anticipated seeing I Saw the Light, so was disappointed that it contained so little “fleshing out” of the characters.
On the other hand, Tom Hiddleston’s performance is worth the price of a ticket to the movie theater. The last song, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is a perfect ending. After seeing important events in his life, he could just as well be singing the song to himself as to someone else.
A reminder that good writing and direction are essential, although sometimes an actor’s performance is worth a viewing.