I SAW THE LIGHT was originally set for an autumn 2015 release with an eye towards positioning Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Hank Williams for Oscar™ consideration. I can see why they thought there would be awards buzz. I can also see why they pulled it from its original release date. Hiddleston is brilliant as the tortured country-western music legend. The script, on the other hand, is an episodic mess that is torture for the audience.
From his wedding in an auto repair shop to the tough-as-nails Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), through the drinking, brawling, womanizing, and assorted questionable decisions, events move swiftly and without much of a helpful narrative. Key characters in Williams’ life pop up without context and then disappear just as quickly. Even the usually helpful, if irksome, dialogue-as-exposition device is maddeningly sketchy, and the emotional crescendos a coherent narrative would provide fail to materialize.
But then there’s Hiddleston. There is the anguish and the sweetness, the noble ambitions to be a better person, the driving ambition to be a star, and the fatal inability to resist temptation. As Williams tells a reporter at one point in the film, his music is about sincerity, and Hiddleston has taken that to heart, bringing a subtlety to his performance that humanizes a larger than life legend. There is no contradiction between the young father cradling his newborn, and the semi-detached lover explaining to one of his flings that marriage is not in the cards for them.
The same is true of how he recreates Williams in performance. He may be lip-synching to a sound track, but he is living the songs, as well as reacting to the audience in front of him. The charisma irresistible.
He is ably supported by an intriguing, complex performance by Olsen, who fulfills the promise of her earlier work in such films as MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and KILL YOUR DARLINGS with an assured turn that combines cold calculation and a flinty sort of warmth. As Lillie, Williams’ formidable mother, veteran Broadway star Cherry Jones is politely ferocious in both her love for her son, and her distaste for his choice of bride. Like the authenticity of Hiddleston’s southern twang, Jones grasps the shades of civility Southern woman use to convey complete and utter contempt.
Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing the shortcomings will soften the blow of the script’s many failings. Is it worth it? Yes, but just barely.