Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams

Based on Hank Williams: The Biography, I Saw the Light is a respectful but otherwise unremarkable show-biz screen biography of the legendary country singer, who died at the peak of his fame at age 29 in 1953.

Williams was, of course, yet another of those American success stories turned American tragedies, and writer/producer/director Marc Abraham dutifully dramatizes his drinking, drugging and womanizing – while periodically pausing for obligatory performance scenes, which are competently staged but not especially rousing.

Tom Hiddleston stars, and although he doesn’t quite look or sing like Hank Williams – a criticism leveled by Hank Williams III – neither did Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005) or Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get on Up (2014). It’s a laudable performance nonetheless, and Hiddleston’s characterization is the only one to really emerge.

Hiddleston’s Hank is first glimpsed perched on a stool at center stage, cowboy hat tilted and spotlight shining down, at which point the camera slowly pans around him. It’s a memorable, mythical shot, and indicative of the high quality of Dante Spinotti’s cinematography, which is unquestionably the best thing about I Saw the Light. Spinotti knows the light, that’s for sure – and he knows darkness and shadows, too. If only Abraham’s well-meaning screenplay was as nuanced.

Elizabeth Olsen plays Hank’s long-suffering first wife Audrey; Maddie Hasson plays Hank’s second wife Billie Jean, who wasn’t married to him long enough to endure as much suffering; Cherry Jones plays Hank’s stalwart mother Lillie; and Bradley Whitford plays record producer Fred Rose. All of them try, with minimal success, to persuade Hank to stay on the straight and narrow. The film’s domestic scenes tend toward the talky, and reveal little than even the casual Hank Williams fan already knows.

A few moments stand out, including Hank’s contentious (and booze-fueled) interview with journalist David Krumholtz, and the palpable sexual spark when Hank first lays eyes on Billie Jean while performing at the Grand Old Opry. But only late in the game, as Williams and fate come into clearer focus, does I Saw the Light pick up the slack, even if the ultimate outcome is inevitable.

I Saw the Light opens Friday !

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