Empire of Light, 2022.
Written and Directed by Sam Mendes.
Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Sara Stewart, Mark Ryan, Adrian McLoughlin, Spike Leighton, Mark Field, Monica Dolan, Justin Edwards, George Whitehead, William Chubb, and Ashleigh Reynolds.
A love story set in and around an old cinema, on the South Coast of England in the 1980s.
Writer/director Sam Mendes opens his latest feature, Empire of Light, with a delicately shot detour of the titular cozy movie theater, emphasizing a sign preaching finding the light within the darkness, presumably a metaphor for the magic and happiness a trip to the movies can bring. This is something Olivia Colman’s Hilary, who works in the theater, knows nothing about since she has apparently never watched a movie before. It’s one of many credibility strains in this ham-fisted misfire, but a reason to make a statement about the power of cinema is a noble goal.
A more significant reason to do so is the first-rate talent Sam Mendes has brought aboard Empire of Light, with to-be-expected picturesque and inventive framing from Roger Deakins, a buzzy electronic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross desperately trying to wring some feelings out of the film’s crucial character moments and set pieces, and fantastic performances from the always outstanding Olivia Colman and rising stars such as her love interest Michael Ward. However, the longer Empire of Light goes on, forcing itself into more misguided melodrama, the more it begins to feel as if Sam Mendes doesn’t deserve any of those ingredients for this project.
Hilary is schizophrenic and numb, currently recovering from an intense incident but out of it and seemingly empty inside. She takes her work as duty manager as seriously as a heart attack, also selling some movie theater treats. Most of her coworkers are on the younger side – aside from Toby Jones’ enthusiastic projectionist – and more concerned with cracking jokes and having fun.
That is until Michael Ward’s Stephen arrives, breaking open a smile in her as she shows him around the building, including some of the levels of the structure, which is now inhabited by pigeons, and, more importantly, one that is injured that Stephen bandages up with a sock and nurses back to help over time (I’m sure you already know what this is a metaphor for, and yes, it’s that groan-worthy to watch play around on screen). There’s also a younger co-worker seemingly attracted to Stephen, suggesting the possibility of a love triangle, although it all goes nowhere and feels pointless.
With such a renewed sense of energy and life, Hilary also finds the strength and motivation to push back against her sexually abusive boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). Aside from that consistent bit of nastiness, Empire of Light‘s most enjoyable moments come from simply observing these characters working inside the theater, whether it be sharing stories of their experiences, chatting about their lives and hobbies, some lecturing on projecting, or handling all types of patrons (civilized and rude).
When Sam Mendes sets his sights on filling in and expanding upon the blossoming romance, Empire of Light often feels forced and lacking in substance, as if it’s unsure of what it wants to do. There’s also something unshakably phony about the depiction of schizophrenia here, albeit one possible to slightly overlook considering the phenomenal word from Olivia Colman. That doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue, but it’s pleasant to report that she’s delivering another towering performance.
Empire of Light also doesn’t shy away from the racial tensions of the time, with Hilary observing Stephen taking some insults on a day-to-day basis (there’s also a hurtful scene involving a crude man that merely erupts into a racist outburst over not being able to bring food into the auditorium), claiming that she understands what he’s going through even though there’s no way she can. The same applies to Stephen trying to understand her mental illness (which he learns about from other employees since she doesn’t talk about it much). Unfortunately, the film haphazardly creates larger moments out of the situation that also comes across as forced and out of step.
Some of these bumps in the road would be forgivable if Empire of Light inevitably made good on showcasing the dynamic range of cinema and how it can affect people, but by the time Hilary is asking to be shown any movie, rather than an emotional connection, there’s a desire to do some trolling and show her some Neil Breen. The only thing left to marvel at is the amount of cross-connection between studios regarding film footage and posters appearing here. That is how disconnected Empire of Light ends up from its movie theater setting roots, opting for questionable approaches to discussing and addressing mental illness and racism.
The best that can be said is that the movie looks and sounds incredible while it fails, with stirring chemistry from Olivia Colman and Michael Ward that disappointingly amounts to nothing moving and belongs in a better narrative. Such top-notch craftsmanship and committed acting are wasted. To repurpose some song lyrics from Trent Reznor, Empire of Light is dazzlingly put together, covered in the crown of shit that is Sam Mendes’ script.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com