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I Saw The Light Review

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A biopic tracing the rise of country legend Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) until his tragic death in 1953, at the age of 29.

★★★★★

One of the great country singers, Hank Williams was an enthusiastic womaniser and, thanks to a back problem, also an alcoholic and painkiller addict whose all-too-short life was filled with bust-ups and scrapes and colourful encounters. On stage, he was renowned for the trademark yodel that propelled songs like Lovesick Blues with a jaunty, irresistible energy.

Hiddleston captures the festering darkness that lurked beneath Williams’ aw-shucks persona.

Precious little of that energy is evident, sadly, in Marc Abraham’s overly austere and pedestrian biopic. Although beautifully shot by Dante Spinotti, it’s a slow trek through scenes we’ve seen a thousand times in a thousand biopics about a thousand tortured musical geniuses — the determined rise to fame, the gradual slump into abuse of various substances, the arguments with a wife at the end of her tether. Abraham attempts to jazz things up with a curious framing device where characters are interviewed about the impact Williams had on their lives, but it’s all rather rote, with precious little insight into the corrosive nature of fame. Based on this, it’s hard not to wonder why Williams’ story needed to be told.

And then there’s Hiddleston. On paper he doesn’t seem like an obvious fit for Williams. The tall, rangy part fits, but at 35, he’s already older than Williams ever got to be, and seemed too damned English to play an icon of the American South, tricksy Alabama accent and all. But from the moment we see him crooning Cold, Cold Heart a cappella while the camera swirls around him, Hiddleston captures the festering darkness that lurked beneath Williams’ aw-shucks persona. Whether it’s bursting into a manic grin as he plays with a garage door, or standing staring at an audience while booze-sweat pours down his head, he makes it easy to understand why Williams was a man who could write songs called I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive.

Hiddleston is matched by a fine cast, headed up by Elizabeth Olsen as Williams’ first wife, Audrey. Impressively, both do their own singing and playing. Perhaps it should be no surprise that a combination of Loki and the Scarlet Witch provides much of the movie’s magic. The rest stems from Williams’ back catalogue. As morose as the movie is, when Hiddleston and his band are tearing through Honky Tonkin’ or Hey Good Lookin’, it suddenly becomes clear why Williams’ story is worth telling on screen.

Hiddleston and Olsen impress, and the music remains golden, but this is just another by-the-numbers biopic.