Movies

Movie Review

Performances sing in ‘I Saw the Light,’ a fine portrait of Hank Williams

Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams and Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.”
Sony Pictures Classics
Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams and Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.”

When will they make a movie about a musician who didn’t have to suffer agony and ecstasy to play or sing some tunes? Say, Yo-Yo Ma; he seems a happy guy. But you might as well just download his music rather than watch some actor fake playing a cello in vain hopes of getting an Oscar for playing a regular guy who just has a good time being a genius.

Among doomed crooners, Hank Williams ranks near the top of the hit parade of angst, oppression, and addiction. One of the most influential pop musicians of the 20th century, he died in 1953 at just 29 years old, succumbing to a heart worn out by booze, drugs, love, and, as his ex-wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) stated in the papers for their second divorce, “a life of wild extravagance.” In Mark Abraham’s “I Saw the Light,” Tom Hiddleston puts in a performance as Williams that ranks with that of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in “I Walk the Line.” And Hiddleston gets to do it in a better movie.

Abraham (“Flash of Genius”) relates the checkered life of Williams in compressed, often eloquent shorthand — brief scenes, images, and edits that relate years or months of misery and triumph. Much of the dialogue has the homespun, epigrammatic edge of some of Williams’s lyrics, though some also is just homespun. And the film could do without the hokey black-and-white post-facto pseudo-doc “interviews” with Williams’s rueful-looking associates à la Warren Beatty in “Reds.”

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Mostly, though, Abraham makes it easy for his cast’s career-making performances. Olsen will get long-deserved recognition for her portrayal of Audrey, a woman as strong-willed and ambitious as Hank, but without the talent.

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As easy as it might have been to set her up as the ruiner who sucks her husband dry, Olsen transforms her into a complex character who, in some ways, is deeper and more complex than her formidable spouse. In one scene, in which she takes the mike from Hank and purrs “Hello!” to a soon soured crowd, she brings Audrey to life. And when she and Hank harmonize perfectly for the first and only time on the title hymn, they make those lives shine.

1/2

I SAW THE LIGHT

Written and directed by Mark Abraham. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 125 minutes. R (some language and brief sexuality/nudity).

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.