By Audra Crane
Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen both give outstanding performances as Hank and Audrey Williams in the new film, I Saw the Light, opening March 25th. Hiddleston's performance as the influential 1940s and 50s singer Hank Williams is, of course, central and it is truly standout. This is in no small part because he sings Williams' songs with complete commitment, as well as convincingly disappearing into the character.
The film is written and directed by Marc Abraham and shot by Dante Spinotti, best known for his work on LA Confidential and The Last of the Mohicans. Like those films, I Saw the Light is imbued with a strong visual sense which informs the audience of time and place. The costuming and sets are all perfectly on point and make the setting utterly believable. The light is diffuse, the color scheme in yellow filtered, mid-century earth tones broken by occasional pops of red and vivid green in the few outdoor scenes. The film mostly takes place inside small spaces, which allows the audience a sense of the internal pressures of the domestic lives being played out-even the venues feel small.
I Saw the Light avoids the glitz of most biopics of entertainers, though it follows a traditional linear path in its telling of the story. It's a full two hours and sometimes the film, like Hank Williams' alter ego Luke, does drift, but it didn't feel slow. It doesn't seek to illuminate the hard scrabble childhood and then follow the artist to dizzying heights filled with wealth and chaos, before charting a hard fall. Rather, in this film, the career arc is secondary to Williams tumultuous relationships to the multiple women in his life during his short career. This likely wouldn't work at all were it not for the excellent turns by all of the actors. Because of this focus on his life, even more so than other films in this genre, it pays off to have a working knowledge of the basics of Hank Williams' career going in.
While there are a number of excellent musical performances (and the film could have done with even more), the movie doesn't generally hit the audience over the head with the relationship between the music and unfolding events. While it is clear that his financial situation is improving, his growing popularity is not the central focus of the film nor the means of his downfall. It's a low-key telling of a dramatic life, with the goal of greater authenticity than the average biopic. In a pivotal scene, Hank Williams explains to a reporter the appeal of his music; Hiddleston delivers the lines quietly, but with such intensity that the central role of music in our lives, and specifically Williams' music, seems undeniable.