Arts Review, Movies
Marc Abraham, director & script based on the biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William Mac Ewen
Starring: Tom Hiddleston (Hank Williams), Elizabeth Olsen (Audrey Williams), Maddie Hasson (Billy Jean Williams, his second wife), Cherry Jones (Lillie Skipper Williams, his mother), Wrenn Schmidt (Bobbie Jett), Bradley Whitford (Fred Rose)
Hank Williams’ life is an American tragedy, done up country style. A modern day Theodore Dreiser could have composed the classic life story of this young man, who broke out of poverty to find love and success only to see it all undone by a lack of self-discipline. Scott Fitzgerald said it best: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Certainly, there wasn’t in the case of the singer-songwriter who wrote such acclaimed tunes as “I’m So Lonesome I Can Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Jambalaya” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
Quoting Fitzgerald and citing Dreiser might seem over the top for a story about a country singer but Hank Williams was no ordinary man. A Southern boy, who started singing professionally when he was just 14, Williams was bursting with talent and drive but let his urge for pleasure overpower his ambition. It’s old tale of wine, women and song, and with Williams, things only worked out well when the order was reversed. Too often, the songwriting took third place to the women in his life–and Williams was never one to turn down an offer for a good drink.
I Saw the Light, the current film about Williams—there had been a previous one, Your Cheatin’ Heart in 1964—recounts the tale of Williams meteoric rise and vertiginous fall mainly through his tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Audrey. His manager throughout their marriage, Audrey was more than a handful. She was a poor singer, who forced her performances on Williams and his audiences, but Audrey helped to spark the rapid rise of her husband to country stardom. She was less successful controlling his drinking and womanizing. And as she was known to take a drink and party with men who liked her, Audrey may well have fueled Hank’s anger and substance abuse.
There’s a scene towards the middle of I Saw the Light that catches the poignancy of their relationship. Audrey has left her husband and taken the children to a house in the country. The camera records, initially from a distance, Hank’s arrival by car and his slow walk into the front yard as Audrey stands on the porch, waiting to be won back into the marriage. He pitches the woo, as folks would have said back in the ‘50s, as he approaches Audrey and the camera moves closer in towards the two of them. When they embrace, the camera is with them, recording their temporary reconciliation.
Regrettably, director-writer Marc Abraham’s has few scenes as superb as that one. His direction lacks tension all too often; this film is really a two-hander and despite the superb performance by Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey and a quite good one by Tom Hiddleston as Hank, it’s hard to care enough about the two of them. When they break up and Hank turns to other women, including a second wife, and a lot more liquor, the film seems to lose its way. Without Audrey as a counter-point, Hank’s swift decline lacks an anchor.
I Saw the Light will inevitably be compared to I Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash bio-pic, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. But just as the real Audrey wasn’t the match as a talent (or a wife) to June, this film doesn’t work as well as the Cash Oscar-winner. Perhaps it’s also the case that I Walk the Line is a story of redemption while I Saw the Light is a tale of a great talent dead way before his time.
While I Saw the Line is a film made with integrity and some style, it won’t become a classic. It’s a film worth seeing, especially if a viewer has an affinity to Hank Williams’ songs, but ultimately it’s a disappointment.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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