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The heart of a country singer  

by
13 May 2016

Stephen Brown sees current film releases

SAM EMMERSON. COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Tour de force: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, with Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams, in I Saw the Light

Tour de force: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, with Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams, in I Saw the Light

THOSE of us who were spellbound by Tom Hiddleston’s performance in the recent television dramatisation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager may be in for a surprise. I Saw the Light (Cert. 15), in which he stars, is about the country-music performer Hank Williams.

It is a tall order even for so talented an English actor as Hiddleston to imitate the singing, let alone the Southern accent, of a musical legend whose recordings invite negative comparisons.

A previous account of Hank Williams’s life, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), starred George Hamilton (not the country singer of the same name) in a somewhat bowdlerised version. This time, the filmmakers obviously wanted less schmaltz, more angst.

That said, Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen as Williams’s first wife, Audrey, are a tour de force in much the same way as Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon were in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Hiddleston admits that he had to be taught how to yodel, but, as with his speaking voice, he brings pathos to it. He gives an impression, not an impersonation, of the man who was Hank to his many fans.

Unfortunately, the director, Marc Abraham, never really gets the film to lift off. Yes, we have the songs, which to my ears were more than passably performed. Likewise, we have the ups and downs of someone who died in 1953 before reaching 30; but why make yet another film about a singer beset by alcoholism and prescription-drug addiction? It’s tricky, unless one invents new angles, which may not correspond to the facts.

Clearly, the production company considered Williams’s conversion to Christianity as crucial to the story; hence the title. He closed many of his shows with it. Gospel music had been a childhood inspiration. Baptist in upbringing, he slept with a Bible in bed with him. This wasn’t a conversion to Christianity, but an intermittent return to it. A biographer described the song with its biblical references as the prayer of a backslider who lives in hope of redemption. Williams truly needed some redemption from a dark and tormented existence.

In contrast, the film rarely reflects this visually. It looks almost too lavish. God, for Williams, was best encountered in music. “People don’t write songs, they’re given to them.” What do resonate in this film are the lyrics, especially the title one: “I saw the light. I saw the light. No more darkness, no more night.”

Is it ironic, when placed alongside a chaotic lifestyle that increasingly gets darker? Or are we being treated to a portrait of a fellow-traveller whose pathway of faith has many twists and turns in it, and yet he hangs on in there, knowing there’s a Love that will not let him go? Hiddleston convinced me that this was the case.

 

KNIGHT OF CUPS (Cert. 15) is Terrence Malick’s latest exploration of the spiritual life, probably his most explicitly Christian. During the opening credits, we hear some lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. This will come as no surprise to keen Malick followers.

From his debut film, Badlands, (1973) onwards, we see his characters strive to find or create a world that transcends contemporary reality. To the Wonder (Arts, 22 February 2013) examined this quest through “the love that loves us”. Knight of Cups refers to the tarot character that in upright mode is forever seeking new pleasures, but, if the card is reversed, becomes a high-minded visionary.

When we are introduced to Rick (Christian Bale), he fits the first category: an easily bored, materialistic philanderer. In a rather obvious counterpart to Bunyan’s Slough of Despond, Rick is walking through Death Valley, California.

He is, as we discover, seeking the pearl of great price. We hear Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) relating a story he used to tell him about a king who sent his son, a knight, in search of a pearl. But he drank from a cup that made him drowsy, forgetting who he was and what he was looking for. Various envoys were sent by his father to wake him “But he slept on.”

What finally brings Rick to his senses is an earthquake, frightening but illuminating: “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know.” Thus a spiritual journey begins. Rick starts reacquainting himself with people of his past (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, etc.), but we’re soon reminded that conventional narrative isn’t this writer-director’s style. Fragmented shots, resplendent with the beauty and wonder of nature, take the place of dialogue.

With the aid of his regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, every image bristles with — a favourite Malick word — glory. At one point, a Charles Laughton voiceover intones from Plato’s Phaedrus how “once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven.” The context in which Knight of Cups firmly settles itself is the Creation.

In a lesser artist’s hands, Knight of Cups would be an evangelistic tract. But the skill and delicacy of so rich a canvas speaks for itself. The metaphysics won’t commend the picture to some viewers, even those who were previously among Malick’s admirers. But it is not that Malick, as he gets older, has become more strident in proclaiming his beliefs at the expense of aesthetic integrity. Rather, the sheer plethora of images, barely audible dialogue, and non-linear narrative make Knight of Cups an uphill battle to reach the Celestial City.

The final word of the film is “Begin”. Linked with earlier words, “Find a way from darkness to light,” that’s an invitation for us to start making sense of a film that both baffles and enthralls those who are prepared to journey with it.

THE title of Truman (Cert. 15) is the name of an old dog who belongs to a dying man, Julián — played by the charismatic Ricardo Darín — who has reached a stage of acceptance of his condition. An old friend, Tomás (Javier Cámara), flies in to Madrid from Canada, where he works. It has been a while since they spent time together, but they quickly pick up where they left off.

Julián’s impending demise has concentrated his mind. Ground rules are quickly established: no skirting round the facts; no false hopes. Mortality becomes a recipe not just for Julián’s life, but everyone’s.

Truman is about doing what’s important in the time left to us here on earth. It is a far cry from having a bucket list of places to see or activities to participate in. Yes, they pop over to Amsterdam, but that’s to spend time with his son. The young man clearly already knows the prognosis, but they don’t speak of dying. It is all in the space between the words.

Julián is better-equipped to speak the truth in love to others. He spends time redeeming misspent moments past, such as apologising to someone he cuckolded. In a restaurant, when a couple try to avoid him, not knowing what to say, he initiates a conversation that reassures them that rumours of his death have been greatly exaggerated. But a time will come.

The best exchanges, though, are with Tomás. Julián tells him what he has learned from him: a generosity of spirit that doesn’t expect anything back. For Tomás, it is his friend’s bravery that he cherishes. They touch on what happens next. Perhaps having been influenced by the spiritual guide Julián has enlisted for this last part of the journey, he says: “Maybe we’re here for a reason.” Later, he phones Tomás in the middle of the night to discuss the hope of heaven.

If Darín’s performance majors on bravado, then Cámara’s is all in the eyes. He is worth the cinema ticket alone.

Allocating the film’s title to a bull mastiff that features only sporadically is emblematic of the overall theme. At the end, who and what are we handing over into the safekeeping of others?

Julián is desperate to find a new home for Truman. The dog, fairly senior himself, will for a short while be Julián’s legacy, passive and unaware of his master’s fate. He is the personification of acceptance. In that respect, Julián and Truman are similar. One senses, however, that whatever the drawbacks, human beings have the edge. We can choose to make our journey towards the grave a spiritual process, whereas this isn’t an option for Truman.

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