Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is impressively shot by Roger Deakins, full of strong performances, a sweeping score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (one of two great scores this year, the other being Bones and All), and feels very evocative of its time and place. So why does it seem that the film is less than the sum of its parts?
This is obviously a passion project for Mendes – he wrote and directed Empire of Light, and while it may not be completely autobiographical, one can sense that he pulled a lot of the film from his own life.
The movie looks like it was shot entirely during the magic hour; Deakins gives everything an ethereal glow that will almost certainly see him recognized during awards season. He’s easily one of the best cinematographers out there, and even if the film doesn’t completely live up to its visuals, it has a sumptuous aura all its own.
But Empire of Light also has the ability to find a cliché and jump headfirst straight into it. One gets the sense that Mendes was trying to find something meaningful without being overly sentimental about his love for cinema, but this is a case where a bit of sentiment would have helped smooth over the more obvious choices Mendes makes with the script. When the sentiment does come, it doesn’t feel as earned as it should.
It is spring, 1981, and the Empire Cinema, on the English coast, is about to get a huge boost – it’s going to host the premiere of Chariots of Fire. Hilary (Olivia Colman) is the manager of the Empire – she sets the schedule, helps sell the tickets, and rallies the troops. She’s also having an affair with the owner (Colin Firth), and suffering from depression, which she had to go away for a while.
Now, she’s medicated, numb, and going through the motions of life – until she meets Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man studying to be an architect. She is attracted to his light and his life, and he to her, and this May-September romance begins to take hold of Hilary’s life in unexpected, and emotionally-heartbreaking ways.
Empire of Light wants to be a film about the power of cinema. And, at its best moments, it is. But it also feels like for much of the film’s running time, Mendes is actively fighting against that tide. Colman’s Hilary isn’t a cinephile – she just works at the theater, and while the theater is her connection to the outside world in many ways, she never sits down to a movie, much to Stephen’s bemusement.
She struggles with mental health issues, and Hilary doesn’t have much of a life outside the theater, but when Stephen enters her life, it awakens something inside Hilary, a willingness to explore new avenues and a stirring of her spirit. Colman gives her customary great performance, but the script also plays up her illness in too obvious ways.
Micheal Ward’s Stephen is also the more compelling story in a lot of ways, but it’s also a story that Mendes probably has only seen from a distance, and probably not his to tell with any real depth. As anti-immigrant and racist sentiments rise in 1981 England, with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, Empire of Light goes down the obvious route when a more subtler one would have sufficed. But Ward is still very good.
Also very good is Toby Jones‘ Norman, the theater projectionist, and much of the source of the film’s love of cinema. He’s a very matter-of-fact person, but Norman recognizes what the power of a great movie can do. Sadly, Colin Firth isn’t given much more to do here except be unpleasant to Colman, and serve as the film’s antagonist, without much nuance to the role.
Empire of Light works best when we see the light and the life through Stephen’s eyes, and his optimism in a world that seems geared to break and tear him down. But Empire of Light steers too often into the road more traveled by, and we know that Stephen will get broken because he must be the sacrificial lamb in stories like this, and that’s too bad.
When Empire of Light works, it’s when we spend time with Hilary and Stephen, when the cares of the world are pushed away, and we are swept up in the romance of it all – like the promises of the movies themselves.
Unfortunately, Empire of Light cannot sustain that, and falls back into the predictable. It’s a beautifully-looking film, and Reznor and Ross’s score is transportive, but it often feels like the film is fighting against itself, and stumbles when it needs to soar. There are some lovely moments in Empire of Light, but those moments are too fleeting.
I have the feeling that this year’s movie about the power of cinema will be The Fabelmans, and Steven Spielberg has no problem making us feel that power. By comparison, Empire of Light feels like Sam Mendes is working with an arm tied behind his back.
EMPIRE OF LIGHT REVIEW SCORE: 6 OUT OF 10
Searchlight Pictures will release Empire of Light in theaters on December 9, 2022. The film is rated R for sexual content, language and brief violence.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He has been a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer,” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.