Film Review: Empire of Light

By Matthew Moorcroft

Weak Recommendation

  • Directed by Sam Mendes
  • Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth
  • R

Empire of Light‘s first mistake letting itself try and be more then it actually is. Sam Mendes is a lot of things, but one thing he isn’t is “simple” as many of his films tend to tackle numerous subjects at once to varying degrees of success. When Mendes hits, he really manages to hit like with the exceptional 1917 or Jarhead, but every once a while you get something like Empire of Light, an beautifully shot, well acted snooze fest that seems to solely exist for Mendes to wax poetic about the nature of cinema – if it is even about that.

Alas, for all of his musings about how Empire of Light would be about the power of movies and old theaters, it only really seems to be about that in bursts, peppered in as a result of Mendes seemingly remembering that “oh yeah, we’re set at a movie theater”. And what a theater it is – the Empire is a gorgeous looking locale for sure, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography certainly makes every shot count. For what it’s worth, you may not find a more consistently beautiful looking this year with it’s stunningly backlit windows, warm yellows, and steady hand on that camera. If this was a movie to showcase how wonderful movie theaters looked, then it’s a recommendation of the highest order.

But it isn’t. Instead, Empire of Light is a love story about love found in unexpected places with unexpected people, and there the results are more mixed. Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman, while fantastic here by themselves, never fully connect as a couple like Mendes thinks that they should, and the romance itself leaves in and out of focus often enough for you to forget that indeed, this was a romance film once upon a time. And when the end comes and the big emotions swell up, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ amazing score getting louder and louder, it all just never really clicks and instead just comes across as manipulative and vapid.

Or maybe I’m just giving too much credit to a movie that clearly doesn’t know what it wants to be. Racism, mental health, adultery, the turn of a new decade, socio-political tensions, it’s all here and Mendes’ ambitions clearly lie in the portrayal of a contentious time period for the UK, a slice of life style story without much in the way of a clear narrative. And while this on paper sounds great, none of it’s interlocking themes and ideas or subplots ever really go anywhere interesting. Colman’s emotional breakdown is stunningly acted, yes, but it’s hastily wrapped up off screen and mostly forgotten about. Ward’s character is dealing with racism, and an incident in beginning of the third act is the last we see of it. Everything feels like a dart board, ticks on a checklist.

Frankly it’s everything it’s a testament to the performances on screen that it’s even remotely interesting sometimes. Colman and Ward are both sublime, yes, but they are surrounded by an equally compelling supporting cast that populates the theater, some of whom are more interesting then the leads themselves. Toby Jones as a wise projectionist is particularly great, though Colin Firth is also great as a particularly slimey manager. If this was a BBC miniseries, there would be potential to explore this cast in greater detail, but instead Mendes really mostly lets these characters exist in their own bubble which is fine if disappointing.

If Mendes really wanted this to be about the power of the cinema, this should have really been more focused and emotionally compelling. There is a scene near the finale where Hilary, our lead, watches a movie in the cinema and finds herself moved to tears out of joy. It’s reminiscent of a similar scene in the excellent Cinema Paradiso, but while that film uses the viewing of a film as an emotional gut punch, this pretends to be poetic about her finding new purpose and it never resonates. It feels cold, distant.

And that’s exactly how I feel about Empire of Light – cold and distant. It’s not a particularly poorly made film, in fact it’s very well made, but it’s script is too all over the place and without clarity. This really needed more time in the sink to really let itself loose, though I’m not going to fault Mendes for trying here. Certainly entertaining in bursts and worth a look for it’s stunning technical work, but otherwise a bore.

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