Review: I Saw the Light
PLOT: The true story of country music superstar Hank Wiliams (Tom Hiddleston), his turbulent marriage to Audrey Mae Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) and his battles with alcoholism.
REVIEW: The danger of screening a film at a festival like TIFF is that with so many good movies in-contention, just being “good” often isn't enough. Movies that screen and aren't downright excellent typically get slammed and often a film's reputation is unfairly tarnished. Such has certainly been the case for Marc Abraham's I SAW THE LIGHT, which went into the festival with tremendous buzz but has mostly been on the receiving end of middling to poor buzz since its premiere last week.
In fact, I SAW THE LIGHT is a perfectly serviceable biopic of country legend Hank Williams, even if a better film could almost certainly have been made as the legend's interesting childhood and the impact his music had on generations of listeners is almost completely ignored. Rather, the focus is on Williams' turbulent marriage to country hopeful Audrey May Sheppard. It's a typical showbiz tale, with the humble Williams starting out doing duets with his wife at barroom dances before hitting the big time on the Opry circuit and becoming a star. Along the way he struggles with sobriety and staying faithful to Audrey Mae, while she bristles at the fact that his talent so obviously dwarfs hers.
It feels like focusing on the relationship was a way for Abraham and company to make a WALK THE LINE-style crossover hit, but the danger is in how familiar it all feels when more daring ground could most certainly have been covered. However, I SAW THE LIGHT is still very entertaining, with the two-hour-plus running time racing-by. More importantly, the two lead performances are excellent, with Hiddleston making an astonishing transformation into Williams that may be even more convincing than how Joaquin Phoenix channeled Johnny Cash in WALK THE LINE.
One thing that's wildly impressive is that Hiddleston does all of his own singing. His country-singing is superb, in that not only does he manage to sound like Williams but also inbues each track with so much heart-and-soul that even if he struggles with a few notes his performance is magnificent. You'd never know that the English-born Hiddleston wasn't born down south, and his channeling of the courtly Williams' genteel southern style is an accomplishment that shouldn't be over-looked just because the film isn't quite as good as it should have been.
While she doesn't quite have the material Hiddleston does in this, Elizabeth Olson is excellent as Audrey Mae, giving her a real edge that keeps her from merely coming-off as the doe-eyed cheated-on spouse. In her own way she's just as selfish as Williams, and Olsen's singing is deliberately high-pitched, as we're supposed to be getting the impression that Audrey Mae's talents are lacking. Her scenes opposite Cherry Jones, who plays Williams doting-mom are especially good, leaving one to wish more time had been spent on the early days of the relationship with Williams, rather than just charting the marriage (they get married in the opening scene).
I SAW THE LIGHT certainly isn't the grand-slam biopic many of us walked into TIFF hoping for, but it's far from the misfire some have been saying it is. It's never anything less than entertaining, and Hiddleston gives the performance of his life in his uncanny portrayal of the complex Williams. No matter what the film's eventual fate is, this will help establish Hiddleston as a much in-demand leading man. While this may not win him any Oscars, if he keeps giving performances of this caliber his career may soon go into overdrive.