Coming off his success in the great BBC espionage series The Night Manager, Tom Hiddleston truly is the British screen actor of the moment. And he does nothing to jeopardise that reputation in I Saw The Light, an account of the short, turbulent but wildly successful life and career of the legendary country singer Hank Williams.
Related: Read our review of The Night Manager
It’s a transformative performance when you consider how Hiddleston – thoroughly British, Eton and Cambridge-educated – inhabits Williams’s character so thoroughly. His southern accent is flawless, he’s as rake-thin as Williams was, and his affect is uncannily similar. He has Hank’s ready smile and a twinkle in the eye (especially when women are in the vicinity) but also a sense of a brooding side, a darker part of himself he holds back.
Uncannily, Hiddleston captures Williams’s singing voice too – a sweet, lonesome sound, edged with melancholy even when tackling an upbeat lyric or tune.
All this is good news for Hank Williams fans (I count myself among them); he certainly merits an appraisal of his greatness in a film of his life. Here’s a man who wrote Your Cheatin’ Heart, Hey Good Lookin’, Move It On Over and Jambalaya among dozens more, all during an amazing career spanning just six years before he died at age 29. The official cause was a severe heart attack, but booze, pills and hard living played a part too.
The bad news about I Saw The Light is that it never rises to the level of its terrific lead performance, and squanders the chances presented by its compelling source material.
Instead, its script sticks to a dutiful, rigidly chronological account of Hank’s life. He does this. Then he does that. Then he goes and does something else. None of it feels untrue, and the film doesn’t flinch from showing his womanising or his love for alcohol (when we first see him, he strides on a stage towards a mike, and swigs from a whisky bottle). But this stolid approach never scratches the surface of a complex, troubled character.
Its worst failing is that we have no inkling about the inspiration behind Williams’s timeless songs. Did he work hard at tweaking and perfecting them? Did they come easily to him? We never learn. Instead he bounds on stage, all smiles and bonhomie, and sings some new classic that seems to have sprung out of nowhere at that very moment.
All this is a great pity. Hiddleston has clearly thrown himself heart and soul into playing Hank Williams. You can’t fault him; but so much else in the film feels like a wasted opportunity.