Hank Williams’ story is lurid, soap opera stuff, the sort of plot trash-lit legend Jackie Collins might have whipped up, but with fewer cowboy hats and better names. The singer of ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’ was a country music star by 24, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a serial adulterer, twice married and dead by 29. The man didn’t live long but he lived. Somehow, Marc Abraham’s biopic has flattened Williams’ short career into a turgid, incurious slog through the lowest moments of his life.
It’s not incumbent on a filmmaker to force us to find their subject likeable – likeability is vastly overrated in cinema, as if the only worthwhile characters are the ones with whom we’d want to be pals – but they have to give us enough information for us to understand them. Abraham jumps into Williams’ life when he’s already on his path to success. Other than a few brief scenes with an overbearing mother (Cherry Jones), we’re given only pinches of Williams’ history. Where did he come from? What formed him? Why is he so singularly ungrateful to everyone in his life? The answers aren’t here. Abraham’s interest is instead mostly in what happens when the music’s stopped, like the drinking, the medical problems and his tempestuous relationship with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen), who nurses singing ambitions of her own but not the voice to realise them. These are, of course, vital, juicy parts of the telling of the story, but they’re not a story in themselves. We need the public face to contrast the private one. It becomes not the tale of a troubled musician but a terrible sozzled husband.
At 35, Tom Hiddleston is too old to be playing Williams, who died at 29, but you can’t fault him in the role. Even when he tells a music exec that he’s 23, you push down the laugh of this plain lie because Hiddleston inhabits every part of the character to which he’s given access. Olsen is his equal, rounding some corners off the spiky wife role. Strong performances, though, aren’t enough to make this more than a dreary flop that’s only interested in playing one side of the record.