REVIEW – “Empire of Light”

For a period piece set in England in the 1980s, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light feels entirely designed to mirror both that point in time and today’s climate. There is definitely a movement in the filmmaking landscape to make a film about the power of cinema to various degrees, between The Fabelmans and Belfast to a lesser-extent. But Empire of Light is some-how a film that is entirely about cinema, in the sense that it almost entirely takes place in a movie theater and follows the lives of its employees – where the film themselves almost feel like an afterthought. In fact, the best way I could describe Empire of Light is that, unfortunately, so many of the ideas at play feel like an afterthought – resulting in a film that feels like it shot off of a rough draft.

The film follows Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a lonely, reserved, middle-aged woman who works as a manager at her local cinema. The only real relationship she has with anyone at her job is her boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth) who she has a complicated, sexual relationship with. The only thing you really know about Hilary is what you see her physically display – she is seemingly affected by some form of mental illness, and doesn’t feel like she belongs at her job. In comes Stephen (Michael Ward), a young, charming and charismatic man starting to work at the cinema alongside Hilary. It doesn’t take much time for the two to form a relationship with one-another, which is what kicks off the crux of the film.

Empire of Light is an anomaly to me, as it feels genuinely perfected on all the technical fronts. From the cinematography from legend Roger Deakins to the incredible, lowkey score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – the film has an amazing mood to it. And yet, the film written by Sam Mendes doesn’t really equate with the caliber he has assembled in front-of and behind-the-camera. Michael Ward and Olivia Colman are both predictably good here, but for a film that completely hinges on the relationship between the two of them, the screenplay and direction leaves much to be desired when it comes to having its audience believe in the romance in the first place. There is genuinely never a point in the film where I care, nor believed, the relationship between the two of them – which is what makes the third act of the film feel all the more cloying and shallow.

It’s not hard to imagine when Mendes wrote the screenplay for this, as a lot of the racial tensions depicted in the film heavily reflect the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. 2020 also saw the closure of movie theaters across the globe, causing a ripple effect that many of us are still feeling today. While the sentiment feels nice, these ideas never once form into a cohesive story, let alone a clear message of what he’s trying to say aside from the most obvious of sentiments. The whole movie feels conceptual, but never once feels like it was designed to be an actual film; it merely feels like the shell of an idea, visualised by some of the most talented creatives you can imagine.

It feels like I’m being harsh, but as I reflect on the time I spent with this movie, I realize that I felt nothing during the entire running-time. It feels like the lowest of what Mendes, a director I actually really like, has to offer as an artist.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s