Tom Hiddleston sings you a dark lullaby as an introduction to his portrayal of country and western singing legend Hank Williams and that just about sets the tone for a biopic in which the star transcends himself but is badly let down by the storytelling.
The song is Cold, Cold Heart – and yes, that is Hiddleston doing his own warbling, with Hank’s trademark yodel – and according to the script by writer/director Marc Abraham, Williams was a very cool customer, frustratingly aloof until his death in 1953, aged just 29.
Hank’s manager Fred Rose (played by Bradley Whitford) pops up in awkwardly slotted interview snippets, initially to tell us that “He didn’t give a damn if you liked him or not”, which is hardly edifying without some hint as to why he struggles to connect with his loved ones, especially his first wife Audrey.
Elizabeth Olsen gives Audrey plenty of fire, but her role in this context seems merely to be the ball and chain that drags Hank down – wanting her own singing career despite a whiny voice and resenting having to stay home with their baby. In short, she cries for attention to inspire sympathy for Hank. Likewise, his momma (Cherry Jones) is a nag.
While accusations fly about Hank’s tomcatting around, we aren’t shown much evidence of it, and Abraham (whose CV is mostly taken up with producing popcorn movies like In Time and the recent RoboCop remake) aims to pitch the story as one of professional and personal jealousy slowly driving a wedge through the Williams marriage.
Of course, the hissing and spitting comes entirely from Olsen’s direction with Hank almost a supporting player in his own life story. Hiddleston perfectly captures his laconic Southern style and oozes down-home charm, and it’s just as well, because an actor without that kind of presence would be swamped by the banality of this story.
No surprises here: Hank was drunk as a skunk most of the time and apart from firing a gun in the garden (did this really happen?) events, as depicted, drift by in a soporific haze. Abraham lets one scene slowly dissolve into the next without punctuation, only stopping occasionally for Hiddleston to tick off songs from the Great American Songbook.
Hank Williams wasn’t just a singer, of course. But there is barely a glimpse of the creative process that led him to write classics like Your Cheatin’ Heart and I Saw the Light, earning him the title “The Hillbilly Shakespeare”. The music just comes to him, or so it appears, and the energy of the honky-tonk scene is reduced to humdrum.
Even as the hits mount up, the excitement of coming up with a new idea and the camaraderie of the band (the Drifting Cowboys, whom Hank calls his “boys”) is totally absent, making Hank’s enduring fame seem like a lucky strike rather than a few genius strokes.
Eventually, Audrey slips out of the frame as well, replaced by Wife No 2 (Maddie Hasson) while a mild case of spina bifida is turning Hank on to harder forms of sedation – and, you know where this is going.
Abraham, like the wandering cowboy evoked in Hank’s songs, meanders through the rest of the film, looking for a sunset. Instead, the light just fades away.
I Saw the Light is released in cinemas on Friday 6 May