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I SAW THE LIGHT (review)

Review by Sharon Knolle
Produced by Marc Abraham, Aaron L. Gilbert,
Brett Ratner, G. Marq Roswell
Based on Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott,
George Merritt, William MacEwen
Written and Directed by Marc Abraham
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones,
Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt

Tom Hiddleston was brilliant as Loki and perfectly charming in Crimson Peak and War Horse, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in High-Rise and The Night Manager.

But the elegant Brit is badly miscast as country music legend Hank Williams in this disappointing biopic.

Lord knows Hiddleston tries his best: He does his own singing and clearly studied what footage there is of Williams’s onstage performances, but, sadly, you never buy him as the man who hauntingly crooned “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

About the only thing Hiddleston has in common with Williams is his lanky figure. He doesn’t look a bit like Williams and it’s impossible to accept this polished, sophisticated actor as “The Hillbilly Drifter” of Alabama. Making the decision to do his own singing was a disastrous call. While that approach surprisingly worked for Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in I Walk the Line, Hiddleston (whose voice is quite lovely in its own right) never captures the lonesome twang that made Williams so memorable.

As Williams’s grandson and namesake, Hank Williams III complained after hearing Hiddleston’s version of “Move It On Over,” “You got no moan or soul in your voice.”

Without the benefit of Williams’s voice (surely the only reason for making a movie about his life), the film is merely a standard recitation of the highs and lows of the country legend’s brief life: Women, music, success, drinking, and visits from shady doctors who kept him going.

The film was due out last year, then pulled and recut after getting brutal reviews at film fests. It’s not clear what was changed, but the film bears the marks of having been drastically cut. How do we learn Hank did a stint in rehab for alcohol? With a 30-second scene showing him waking up in a hospital bed, getting dressed and checking out of rehab without ever showing us his decision to go in the first place.

I hate to say it, but the most affecting scene in the film is one that Hiddleston isn’t even in: When an audience gathered to hear him sing learns of his untimely death, they spontaneously burst into his heartfelt Gospel song “I Saw the Light.”

The only moment that we begin to buy Hiddleston as the troubled singer is when he quietly performs an acoustic version of his new song “Cold, Cold Heart” shortly before his death. He still doesn’t sound like Williams, but he also has the benefit of not having to copy note by note a recording that any Williams fan knows by heart.

I’d happily see Hiddleston play a fictitious singer, but he’s just plain wrong to play the iconic country star. At least the film inspired me to come home and listen to the real Hank.

Rating 2 out of 5 stars
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