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Movie Review: “I Saw the Light”

Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson
Marc Abraham

It was only last week that Stephen Frears’ formulaic biopic, “The Program,” arrived in theaters, and hot on the heels of that film, writer-director Marc Abraham delivers a similarly distant and uninvolving biographical drama, this time about troubled country musician Hank Williams. Once again, despite a compelling performance leading the way, “I Saw the Light” is yet another biopic that doesn’t dig deep enough into its subject.

Narratively, “I Saw the Light” is a collection of greatest hits that covers Williams’ (Tom Hiddleston) short and tragic life. Much of Abraham’s script focuses on the singer and songwriter’s testy relationship with his first wife, Audrey Mae Williams (Elizabeth Olsen). Audrey Mae isn’t exactly in the same league as her husband musically, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to sing along with him. She’s also not the healthiest of influences in Hank’s life, which involves plenty of alcoholism and infidelity.

For the first half of “I Saw the Light,” Hank’s marriage makes for a relatively focused glimpse into the singer’s life, but the film soon turns into the rise-and-fall biopic we’re far too accustomed to. Abraham only seems to graze the surface of Williams’ story, which is rarely as emotional as it sounds.

Watching the young Hank Williams waste away his life, family and talent should be dramatic. However, because the movie is just going through the motions, much of the drama comes across as routine. The third act, especially, could’ve been potentially excruciating, but instead, Williams’ death just sort of happens.

What’s most disappointing about this biopic is its lead performance, and not because Hiddleston is underwhelming in the role, as that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Englishman never slips into impersonation; he’s fully present and alive, even if the film around him isn’t. Hiddleston makes a convincing transformation, playing a man slowly ripping himself apart. The performance isn’t enough to elevate the fractured narrative, but Hiddleston still gives the role his all, embracing Williams’ less flattering qualities.

The last half of the movie is dedicated to Williams’ relationship with his second wife, Billie Jean Horton (Maddie Hasson), which begins to feel like another movie entirely, as the storyline doesn’t completely connect with Williams’ troubled marriage with Audrey Mae. Certain side characters and subplots also never quite get their time to shine, despite the film’s more reserved style of pacing.

Abraham deserves credit for not glossing over the country singer’s more unflattering traits. The well-known producer has made an admirably warts-and-all type of biopic, but that’s not enough to make “I Saw the Light” any different than most in the genre. This film doesn’t bring much new to the table, and we never quite feel like we’re seeing the world as Williams did. Sometimes, Abraham will use space and distance in his framing to isolate the singer from his surroundings, but in most instances, the story behind the music or the failed relationships isn’t tangible. Perhaps that’s the point – that Williams lived a strangely aimless life while on autopilot – but it’s never an idea that’s fully conveyed in the story Abraham chose to tell.