WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening sentence hints at, this article was written in 2012.
The 2012 New York Film Critics Circle Awards were recently given out, and one of the big winners was Rachel Weisz who won the Best Actress Award for her performance in “The Deep Blue Sea.” In the film she portrays Hester Collyer, the wife of a High Court judge who ends up having a passionate affair with Royal Air Force pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), and we watch as this affair throws her life into utter turmoil. “The Deep Blue Sea” hasn’t yet found the audience in America it deserves, but hopefully Weisz’s win will bring more attention to the film which has earned tremendous critical praise since its release.
“The Deep Blue Sea” was directed by British independent filmmaker, Terence Davies. His resume includes such movies as “Distant Voices Still Lives,” “The Neon Bible” and “The House of Mirth” which featured an extraordinary performance from Gillian Anderson. In an interview with Ara Aquino of Complex, Weisz described Davies as being “very different” and “unusual” compared to most other filmmakers she has worked with. Hearing Weisz talk about Davies makes him sound both rigid and yet full of life:
“He’s probably as passionate as Hester and led by his emotions and his heart. He’s more like her than I am,” Weisz said of Davies. “He gets really carried away both in happiness and sadness and anger. He’s a very emotional person. He likes things to be incredibly controlled in terms of where the camera is; you’re the center of the frame. It’s the opposite of contemporary, hand-held reportage style films that we’re used to seeing now. He’s got real rigor as a filmmaker, but he’s also really passionate.”
Weisz then went on to tell Aquino that what interested her about playing Hester was how the character “really, kind of completely humiliated herself” and has “no pride.” Those who have seen “The Deep Blue Sea” can agree this role is a frightening and challenging one for any actress as it forces them to convincingly portray conflicting emotions and to play a character who is not exactly likable. Still, it was those challenges which made Weisz want to take on the role.
“What I found interesting about her was she just fell so completely, devastatingly, utterly in love with someone who really didn’t even love her back,” Weisz said about Hester. “She just couldn’t control it, and I thought that was really interesting to see someone lose it. She just throws herself at his feet and kind of makes a complete fool out of herself in many ways.”
Actually, one of the most refreshing things I heard Weisz say about the roles she chooses is that she does not worry about whether the character is likable or not. Many actors tend to be very self-conscious about their work and how the public will treat them for playing someone who is far from being universally loved. But they do themselves a disservice thinking like that as they cut themselves off from many interesting opportunities worth taking advantage of. Weisz made this clear in an interview she had with the Awards Line website.
“I think if you ask the audience to like you, it’s all over,” Weisz said. “The most interesting characters are those you’re drawn to, then repelled by, and then come to understand. All that tension – I live that. But I don’t plan the tension. It’s just something that should happen. I don’t judge the character at all. It’s a bit like being someone’s defense lawyer-you have to believe in their innocence in order to defend them. Did I know that Hester was a pain in the ass? Yeah.”
Another interesting story about the making of “The Deep Blue Sea” involved shooting the love scene between Weisz and her co-star Tom Hiddleston. While Weisz has been in her share of sex scenes in movies, this particular one was the first that Davies ever directed. In talking with Michael Ordoña of the Los Angeles Times, it sounded like she spent a lot of time trying to make Davies feel more comfortable about doing it which was amusing because it’s typically the other way around.
“He just said, ‘I want you to lick his shoulder.’ He had never shot a nude scene, or a sex scene,” Weisz said of Davies. “I thought for a while, ‘Maybe I’ll just keep on my slip.’ But then he said ‘Ah, no, I don’t think so …’ He was really embarrassed. He had it in his mind he wanted audiences to see their bodies together.”
“The Deep Blue Sea” may not be the kind of movie that fills up multiplexes around the globe, but it is a must see for those who love complex dramas and great acting. Rachel Weisz continues to deliver one great performance after another, and this film features one of her best yet. If she continues to choose her roles in the way she told Aquino, then we can expect many more unforgettable performances from her in the future.
“You just have to read a script and think, I’d really like to play this character,” Weisz told Aquino. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s a big movie or a small movie. You still have to say the lines and make it sound true. I just need to be intrigued or pulled in. It’s hard for me to put it into words. It’s like reading a book: Some books grab you and some books don’t. It’s the same with a character. Some things you just really connect with. It could be a really silly book or a dark tragedy.”
WRITER’S NOTE: This article is in regards to a press day which took place back in 2014.
Scottish actress Tilda Swinton is not just an excellent actress but a unique one as well. She doesn’t invite easy comparisons amongst her peers because she stands out in a way few other actresses do. She is lovely in the way she portrays a character, lovely in the way she moves onscreen, and, as we learned when she appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel for the press conference on “Only Lovers Left Alive,” she speaks lovely about her work and of the vampire she portrays in this film.
Written and directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” tells the tale of two vampires who have lived through countless centuries and, as the movie starts, have reunited after being apart on different continents. Swinton plays Eve who remains optimistic about the world’s future even after all she has seen, and her lover Adam is played by Tom Hiddleston (Loki of “Thor” fame) who is more pessimistic about where things are heading. You might mistakenly dismiss Jarmusch’s film as just another vampire film, but it proves to be much more than that as it deals with love and death in equal measure.
Everyone was understandably interested in what attracted Swinton to the role of Eve, and she went out of her to explain what her favorite characteristic of Eve was.
Tilda Swinton: She has this perspective, that she doesn’t sweat the small, the medium or the big stuff, and that she’s full of wonder. She’s always looking up which feels to me pretty much the prerogative of people who have lived that length of time.
This film also marks the third time collaboration between Swinton and Jarmusch. She previously appeared in “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits of Control,” and off-screen she is really good friends with the filmmaker as well. We all wondered what kind of direction Jarmusch gave Swinton on this particular movie. This led Swinton to discuss the number of years it took to get “Only Lovers Left Alive” made, and how this length of time benefited both her and Jarmusch.
TS: We talk all the time. Whether we talk about anything that’s pertinent to the making of the movie, I don’t know. We’re friends now and part of the reason that I love to work with him is it means that I get to hang out with my pal for longer than if I wasn’t shooting with him. This one was another long gestation. It was seven or eight years since now when he first rang me up and said, Hey there, let’s make a vampire film. So that means a lot of conjuring, many breakfasts when I was flying through New York saying so where are we, many moments on the phone and many conversations in dark corners about where we were going to go next over the years. When we came to shoot, the lovely thing about those long developments is that when you come to shoot, it’s just grace. You’re so relieved to finally be putting it down and you’ve also had that length of time to talk about it. You really don’t need to talk about that much.
One truly unforgettable thing about Swinton in this role, or in any other role she has played thus far, is how beautifully she moves. The physicality she shows off from moment to moment is incredible, and we all wanted to know how she came up with it. The fact she’s playing a vampire here makes her performance all the more fascinating as a result.
TS: We talked a lot about what it would be if you were that unsocialized because they’ve kind of been lifted out of human society, and very quickly we started to talk about them as lone wolves so we talked about them as animals. When we were putting together the look, we ended up filling those wigs with yaks’ hair and wolves’ hair, and there’s a heartbeat in the film that comes up and down in the soundtrack which is actually a wolf’s heart. So, I thought a lot about wolves when we were thinking about how Eve would walk about. If you’re not in the pack, if you’re alone at night, you can take your time. You can pick your rhythm. The music is very important life blood, but also the camera, the move and the feeling of the movement is always very important to Jim, and this one particularly because of this passage through these two different wildernesses.
After watching “Only Lovers Left Alive,” many wondered about the relationship between Adam and Eve and how they have lasted so long as a couple. At the start, they reside on different continents before they reunite. We asked Swinton what she did to create the really comfortable long-term bond between Eve and Adam. In the process, she brought up one of Jarmusch’s main inspirations.
TS: One of the first bits of sand in the oyster for Jim, which he immediately told me about on that telephone call eight years ago, was this book by Mark Twain, “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” which is so delightful and playful. It’s sort of fictional or maybe not diaries of the original Adam and Eve which spells out very clearly that this is an enormous love affair between two opposites. That was a foundation in stone for us that they would be in it for the long haul, but completely different. That I find really enticing, to show two people really loving each other, but not being like each other at all. So, we talked a lot about that and that was fun because that feels really human, playing with that. Also, as you notice, we wanted it to be about a marriage in which they talk as long relationships do. There’s a sort of tradition of showing people coming together and then the end, and you never really see them actually living it out and living the ups and the downs and talking it through. We really spent a lot of time wanting to get that tone of two people who were family. It’s a long, long marriage. They are family, and that’s why they still dig each other even though they are so different and he is so tricky to live with and she is such a space cadet. They have this communication thing going and they really like talking about stuff. We really wanted to show that it felt like it was something we haven’t necessarily seen before.
Another big relationship Eve has is with playwright Christopher Marlowe, played here by John Hurt. In the universe this film takes place in, Marlowe has been proven to be the real writer of William Shakespeare’s plays, and he at one point ends up calling Shakespeare an illiterate at best. When Swinton asked about how she and Hurt established the rhythm of their characters’ relationship, she pointed how this relationship differed between the one Eve has with Adam.
TS: The relationship with Marlowe is a very precious part of the film for me. Honestly, partly because it felt very close to my own experience having a very close relationship with, in particular, Derek Jarman whose disappearance from the building I had to witness. But him being a partner, a different kind of partner for her, he’s her neighbor and he’s her companion in a way that Adam isn’t. It just felt completely alive and fresh. I just know that relationship inside out, and John does too and he was the perfect dance partner to play that out with. Our references are kind of similar. He feels like family and we just put that into the film.
One of the great joys of watching “Only Lovers Left Alive” is realizing it is not a “Twilight” wannabe. Then again, we should know Jarmusch is the last kind of filmmaker to follow current trends. The characters of Adam and Eve are unlike any vampires we have seen, and their love affair is proof of how opposites attract. While Eve is more optimistic and lives to celebrate each and every period of Earth’s history, Adam is far more cynical about the present day. We all wondered how Eve could stay so upbeat even when in Adam’s company, and her explanation of why was both fascinating and amusing.
TS: Well, he’s very young. He has yet to learn. He’s only 500 years old. She’s 3,000 years old. She seen it all and she knows that survival is possible if one keeps one’s eyes open and takes it all in. It’s not like she’s recommending a journey one space away. She talks about witnessing the Inquisition and the Middle Ages. She’s witnessed all the holocausts there have been, and yet she’s still seen humanity and spirit and nature survive those things. So, she knows that as long as one keeps looking up and as long as one keeps breathing and keeps one’s perspective, survival is possible. She’s got her priorities right. I love the fact that what Jim’s looking at here is how one goes on living, how one goes on loving, how one goes on renewing and, as they say, rebooting one’s sense of wonder and engagement. It feels strangely radical and unfashionable; the very fact that they are trying not to be young, but instead they are trying to survive youth.
Another thing that stood out to me is how the fact Adam and Eve were vampires really became secondary to the story. After a while, you don’t see them as vampires but more as a loving couple dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. Also, Adam has a heartbeat which is something we usually don’t expect vampires to have. Swinton explained this was done intentionally.
TS: We were slightly messing with the form. We’ve all seen a lot of vampire films and we like the idea of disconnecting some of the myths, some of the tropes and then also inventing some new ones. So, we’re hoping that all the vampire films from now on would involve these gloves that we actually put out there in the first place. I think we all felt the same that being vampires, very evolved vampires, very humane, virtually vegetarian vampires is secondary I would say to the idea of them being immortal and being lovers in a way that only lovers can really be immortal because they live on in each other’s spirits.
Another big question was why Detroit and Tangier were chosen as the main locations. Both prove to be major characters as they come to inform Adam’s and Eve’s individual worldviews. Detroit, which is better known these days for its problems more than anything else, suits Adam’s sensibilities perfectly while Tangier appeals to Eve in a whole other way.
TS: Detroit was always going to be a very important character in the film. My sense is that Detroit was like the Emerald City for Jim, so for him it’s really a love story to make a film there. Tangier was a kind of newer idea. There was a moment where we were going to make it Rome, and for all sorts of reasons Rome sort of detached. And then we wanted very much to making a home on the African continent, and then it became Tangier. Tangier seems to be such a natural home for her. It’s a different kind of wilderness. It’s packed full of people from all corners of this particular planet and probably others and from all particular centuries. It’s got that sense of all corners of time and space, end and start in Tangier, and you can also walk around Tangier at night and cause absolutely no ripples at all even with a massive, great wolf’s hair wig on and fantastic pants. It’s just a sort of hot spot of spirit, and it felt like a very nice partner to this relatively unpopulated Detroit where people are rare and relative to empty windows and grass and wolves. Once we settled on Tangier that really felt like the right place for her.
Tilda Swinton remains one of the best and most fascinating actresses working today, and she will continue to be as long as filmmakers are smart enough to give her free reign. She has been able to go from making independent films to studio movies with relative ease, and she still has an endless number of great performances to give. Some actors might get stifled when going from the indies to a film with an enormous budget, but this doesn’t look like it will happen to Swinton anytime soon.
TS: It’s all endlessly fascinating. It’s just a different caliber. It’s like getting a finer tooth to it. It’s only relatively rare because I come from a kind of cinema that grew out of the art world. Working with a sort of naturalistic grain is something I’ve rarely done, but when I have done it, I’ve really enjoyed it and found it just a special atmosphere. For example, in something like “Michael Clayton” or even “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” that sort of realism, just trying to spin the realism, has been really interesting. Maybe I’d always want to spin it, but to spin it with that kind of naturalistic grain like deep cover. It has been very interesting although I’ve done it very seldomly. It’s all fun to me. It’s all dressing up and playing whether it’s dressing up as a corporate lawyer or dressing up as someone of 96.
More power to you Tilda!
PLEASE CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH TILDA SWINTON FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:
WHILE WE ARE AT IT, CHECK OUT TILDA’S REACTION TO ME COMPLETING THE 2014 LOS ANGELES MARATHON THE DAY BEFORE THIS INTERVIEW:
So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.
“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.
This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.
What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.
Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.
And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.
The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.
It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.
But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.
Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…
The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.
“Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.
Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.
First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.
I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”
As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.
As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.
Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.
Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.
There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”
Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”
Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.
Watching “I Saw the Light” reminded me of when I saw Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Both movies have a great cast, a lead actor who perfectly embodies an iconic singer, and scenes which vividly bring to life the classic songs of the artists. At the same time, both movies keep their main subjects, in this case country singer Hank Williams, at arm’s length to where we come out feeling like we never really got to know them. Considering the talent involved, this particular music biopic proves to be a major disappointment.
Writer and director Marc Abraham, whose previous film was “Flash of Genius,” eschews Hank’s childhood and goes straight to when he married Audrey Sheppard, a divorcee and single mother. They look like the perfect couple, and this is especially the case when you consider the palpable chemistry between stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. But like many biopics, we know everything is heading downhill for these two, and Hank’s life got cut short by alcoholism and a painful medical condition. He was only 29 years old when he died, but he looked much, much older.
The movie gets off to a wonderful start as we see Williams singing one of his most famous songs in a sequence which is beautifully lit by the brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti. We are instantly hooked as the country icon’s lyrics capture our attention right away, and it makes us look like we’re in for quite the biopic. Unfortunately, this proves to be its high point as nothing else ever measures up.
One of the big problems with “I Saw the Light” is it is so sloppily edited to where it’s hard to tell what part of Hank’s life we are looking at. It goes from one section of his life to another before we can ever fully digest what is going on. This makes the movie very confusing, and it keeps us from getting to know Hank and the other people in his life more intimately. I felt like I never really understood what fueled his music, and he became the kind of person who is not at all fun to hang out with.
Also, the movie feels undercooked to where Abraham has his cast of actors underplay every single scene they appear in. Nothing ever comes to life in the way it should, and everything in “I Saw the Light” eventually becomes an exercise in tedium. It’s bad enough we never get deeper into Hank’s psyche, but to see this story portrayed in such a passionless way makes this whole project come across as an unforgivably missed opportunity.
“I Saw the Light” does, however, have Hiddleston as Hank Williams, and his performance is in some respects amazing. We all know him for playing Loki in the “Thor” and “The Avengers” movies, and at first he seems like an odd choice to play the man who made “Lovesick Blues” such an unforgettable song. But he succeeds not only in mastering Hank’s accent, but in getting the audience to feel the songs as much as he does when he sings them. That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing here, and this makes his work here all the more admirable.
I was also impressed with Olsen’s performance as she makes Audrey perhaps the only human being who could possibly deal with Hank’s alcoholism and womanizing. Watching her here makes one realize what a powerful actress she can be, and she brings this movie to life in a way others are unable to.
As for the supporting characters, they are given short shrift and serve little purpose other than to further Hank and Audrey’s exploits. Cherry Jones, a tremendous actress, is wasted here as Hank’s mother Lillie as she has almost nothing to do other than sneer at any woman who grabs her son’s immediate affection. Bradley Whitford makes a bit of an impact as Fred Rose, the man who helped Hank rise to stardom, but Fred’s contributions to Hank’s career are made to feel smaller than they were. Maddie Hasson fares better as Billie Jean, the young woman who eventually becomes Hank’s second wife, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of her here.
For what it’s worth, “I Saw the Light” did give me a good appreciation of Hank Williams’ songs. I have never been much of a country music fan, but the movie made me see why his music struck such a strong chord in so many people. Hank understood the pain of love in a way others didn’t want to experience firsthand, and it was not hard to connect with the feelings he so deeply expressed through music.
Still, the movie never digs deep enough into his life, and what results is a inescapably frustrating cinematic experience. This could have been one of the best biopics of recent years, but the filmmakers treat their main subject with kids’ gloves to where he feels like a complete stranger from start to finish. Coming out of “I Saw the Light,” I wanted to read more about Hank Williams on Wikipedia among other places on the internet as there’s got to be much more information on him there than what we got here.
We all know him as the villainous Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but now British actor Tom Hiddleston takes on his most challenging role yet as iconic country singer Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light.” Written and directed by Marc Abraham, the movie starts with Hank getting married to the lovely and business savvy Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), and it follows him from there as he works his way from singing on the radio to becoming a big time star at the Grand Ole Opry. The movie also shows the pain, challenges and addictions he suffered through which led to him creating some of the most memorable country music and his premature death at age 29.
In preparing to play Hank Williams, Hiddleston had to learn his songs and sing them himself. Working extensively with musical coach and veteran country singer and songwriter Rodney Crowell, Hiddleston immersed himself in Hank’s music and worked tirelessly to match his vocals to Hank’s as much as he could. There’s no doubt it was a difficult process for the actor, but watching him in “I Saw the Light” makes you see the tremendous effort he put into his performance.
I attended the movie’s press conference at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, California where Hiddleston was joined by Abraham and Olsen. I was very interested in how Hiddleston managed to get past all the technical aspects of the singing to where he could put all the rehearsal behind him and just sing his heart out. Izumi Hasegawa, a reporter for What’s Up Hollywood and Hollywood News Wire asked him which of Hank’s songs was the hardest to sing, and this would later lead in to my question for him.
Tom Hiddleston: The most challenging song was probably “Lovesick Blues.” “Lovesick Blues” is, I think, of all the songs Hank sang, the hardest, and he probably sang that the most. It was a huge hit for him. He once went up on stage somewhere, it’s on an album called “The Lost Concerts,” and he’s about to introduce it. He says, “I’m going to play a little song for you. I sang this 13,000,001 and a half times and it’s earned us quite a few beans and biscuits.” It was obviously this real hit maker for him and he sang with such control and such authority that he must have done it in his sleep, and I had to accelerate that process because it’s a very technically difficult song. You are yodeling and you are jumping octaves, and so to be on pitch in every note of that song was really challenging. I had days where I felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall because Rodney Crowell and I would do take after take after take because if I was rhythmically precise the pitch was off, but if the pitch and the rhythm were right Rodney would say, “Well, you weren’t really feeling it. I kind of lost your sincerity, I lost the twinkle, so could you put that back?” And then I’d have the twinkle and I’d go off rhythm again. So yeah, that was probably the most challenging.
Ben Kenber: Clearly you did a lot of vocal work in preparing to sing like Hank Williams. When do you think you got to the point where you stopped worrying about the singing technicality and started to feel the songs instinctually?
TH: It goes back to what I was saying about “Lovesick Blues.” We had to pre-record certain tracks because of the way we were going to shoot them. If Marc was covering a concert performance, it meant he was going to be cutting from wide shots to close-ups to handheld which meant that we had to be very technically precise about the musical track and therefore couldn’t play it live in order for it to cut in. So we had to pre-record the tracks which I would then play and sing along to myself. They each had to have different atmosphere because some of them are radio station tracks, some of them are studio tracks, some of them are live concert performances, and there were some that came very quickly and very easily to me and some that didn’t. I had recorded “Why Don’t You Love Me” in about an hour. It took me about 10 days to record “Lovesick Blues” and I can’t explain why (laughs). Rodney and I used to say that it was like swimming through the ocean, and that I would have to swim for miles and miles through seaweed in order to get to clear water. And that’s how it felt vocally; there would be cracks and strains in my voice. Singing is a physical thing, and once your body and your resonance and your lungs are sufficiently warm, you can actually get to a place where it feels like you’re up at altitude where you are finally in control of the airplane if that makes sense. It’s a fascinating experience for me because I still believe singing is the most naked form of emotional expression. Actors can hide behind characters, writers can hide behind their writing, painters can hide behind paintings, but singers are purely open. The reason we revere the greatest singers is because we feel a raw power to the transmission of their emotions whether it’s Johnny Cash or Amy Winehouse or Nina Simone or Hank Williams or whoever it may be for you. That was challenging because even though there was a technical discipline to it in manipulating my baritone voice to sound like Hank’s tenor, there was still a commitment to emotional sincerity which was really new for me.
Following Hiddleston’s response, Abraham spoke up about what he specifically wanted for this movie.
Marc Abraham: I just want to add something to that because it was a big deal when we decided how we were going to do the music. From the very moment I wrote the script and decided to make the movie, I was intent that we would not have any lip-synching and that whoever played the part was going to have to sing it. I didn’t know they would be able to do it as well as Tom did. I was hoping that would happen, but what’s important to understand and that Tom understood and Elizabeth to some extent when she was even pretending to sing badly even though she gets mad at me for saying she can sing well (she can). Tom and I both knew from the very beginning that he would never sound exactly like Hank Williams. I know Hank Williams like my mother knows her kitchen. There are people who can imitate Hank Williams better than Tom Hiddleston can imitate Hank Williams because he is a natural baritone and Hank’s a tenor, and that’s just reality. What Tom was able to do was to create the feeling not just in his voice and replicate the sounds and the modulations and to get close enough for us, but to inhabit the character. So in the end it didn’t matter that he didn’t sound exactly like Hank Williams. What we wanted was for you to feel that he was Hank Williams, and that was magic. The magic was that he got so close to the music and put so much energy and time and devoted himself so deeply to becoming that character and bring his vocal representation that close, knowing from the very beginning he couldn’t be exactly like Hank. It’s not possible. That was what was really important, and that’s why we didn’t lip-synch it because then you are watching it and you may think you know what it sounds like, but in the end you feel it and you see that character at play and you see Hank singing “Your Cheating Heart” which is done live. That’s Hank Williams.
I want to thank Tom Hiddleston and Marc Abrahams for sharing their thoughts on the making of “I Saw the Light.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.