Time: 103 Minutes
Age Rating: Violence, offensive language, sex scenes & content that may disturb
Olivia Colman as Hilary Small
Micheal Ward as Stephen
Colin Firth as Donald Ellis
Toby Jones as Norman
Tom Brooke as Neil
Tanya Moodie as Delia
Hannah Onslow as Janine
Crystal Clarke as Ruby
Monica Dolan as Rosemary Bates
Director: Sam Mendes
The duty manager of a seaside cinema, who is struggling with her mental health, forms a relationship with a new employee on the south coast of England in the 1980s.
I had heard about Empire of Light, it was an upcoming awards contender from Sam Mendes which would be starring Olivia Colman. I heard some very mixed and disappointing reactions to it, but it seemed to do enough to get nominated for the cinematography from Roger Deakins, so I thought I’d check it out. I don’t think it’s that good considering the talent involved, but its passable.
Sam Mendes wrote the script by himself for the first time, and its definitely the worst part of the movie. The plot meanders, I wouldn’t say I was bored but I found it somewhat dull and I wasn’t very invested in it. The plot mainly focuses on a few main aspects, the operation of a theatre (and as such this movie aims at being a love letter to cinema), mental illness (relating to Olivia Colman’s character), and racism (relating to Michael Ward’s character). These three threads just don’t work together at all and I’m not really sure what Mendes was going for here. It jumps between being three separate movies over the course of this one and it doesn’t do anything with any of them. I hesitate to call Empire of Light a love letter to film, because that aspect felt a bit underdeveloped. The other two storylines were worse, and it was messy with how it attempted to take on weighty subject matter. The racial element particularly felt detached from the characters. It’s not even a constant thread throughout, but instead has designated racism moments sprinkled in at various moments where Mendes deems it important. The movie highlights these social issues, but doesn’t really investigate them or do anything with them. Instead it falls back onto half baked tropes and cliches more than anything with value, leaving you with a feeling that you’ve seen these moments done before and better. The only somewhat substantial aspects of the movie are the love of the movie theatre and the central romance, and neither are all that compelling.
The movie does benefit from its strong cast at the very least. Olivia Colman is as usual fantastic as the main character, and she really helps to sell her character. The next major character is that of Stephen played by Michael Ward, who does a good job but there are issues with his character. Stephen almost seems like he’s there to serve Colman’s character than to be a character of his own. He doesn’t have much of a personality or identity, and it’s only later in the film that we get his home life. A prominent aspect is a romance between Colman and Ward, and it’s just as well that the chemistry between the actors is strong enough considering that the relationship felt very forced and sudden. Honestly, I would’ve bought it much more if it was just a friendship instead. Other actors like Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Tom Brooke are good, I particularly wished that we got more of Jones because his scenes were usually the standouts in the film.
For what it’s worth, Sam Mendes does deliver better when it comes to directing, he is usually pretty reliable on that front at least. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is stunning as usual, even if it’s far from his best work, and helps set the melancholic tone of the film. The production design also brings to life the old locations and settings in 1980s London, particularly with the theatre. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is delicate, tender and very good on the whole, even if it sounds like they’re somewhat aping Thomas Newman.
Empire of Light has solid performances, good direction, and is strong on a technical front, but it is held back by the messy, underwhelming and somewhat dull story and writing. It did really feel like Sam Mendes had a passion for this story beyond just making Oscar bait, but I don’t think it really came together despite the potential. It’s not bad, just okay at best.