Empire of Light – Film Review
Cast: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Monica Dolan, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth
Director: Sam Mendes
Synopsis: On the south coast of England, a romance develops between two cinema employees…
Review: Where do you go after making what could feasibly be deemed your magnum opus? This would have been the question for Sam Mendes following the magnificent triumph of his captivating war film 1917. It has been popular among big-time Hollywood directors to focus on films which illustrate the wonders of the big screen, understandable given the COVID-19 pandemic caused cinemas everywhere to remain dark for many months. Therefore, it seems a given a renowned director like Mendes would be able to bring something unique to this increasingly popular cinematic trend. Yet, despite some good intentions, Mendes’ follow-up to his World War I masterpiece is a crushing disappointment.
Set in the early 1980s on the South Coast of England, Hillary (Colman) is the manager of the Empire, a beautiful cinema in a prime location on the seafront. Despite being a consummate professional who is dedicated to doing her job to the best of her ability in spite of the presence of her rather unpleasant boss Mr Ellis (Firth), Hillary’s happiness is beginning to diminish as the job takes a toll on her mental health. However, with the arrival of Stephen (Ward), things initially start to seem a little brighter as the two of them develop a romance. However, it is a brief respite for Hillary as her mental health worsens, especially with the country sliding into recession, putting the cinema at risk, and the foul stench of racism clogging the seaside air.
The film marks Mendes’ first solo attempt at writing a screenplay and it is telling his efforts completely crumble under the enormous weight of the story it is trying to convey. It is all well and good to tackle important social issues such as the stigma which still surrounds mental health and the poisonous presence of racism in society. Yet, it is all rendered utterly meaningless as the attempts to tackle these issues are so hamfisted and underdeveloped, the film feels completely unsure of what it really wants to say. In doing so, it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the issues it is trying to address, even more so considering the film is also attempting to portray a love story between two cinema employees, while also coming across as a moving ode to the magic of the big screen, the latter of which seems to be tacked on as a mere afterthought. There are simply too many different subplots happening at one time and it ultimately proves too much for Mendes to weave these together all by himself.
Since winning her first Oscar in 2019, Olivia Colman has fast become something of an industry favourite among industry and audiences alike, given she has added two further nominations in the last two years. While both Colman and Michael Ward admirably try their hardest to elevate the poor and underdeveloped material they have both been given to work with, it proves to be too difficult a challenge for both of them to overcome. Their romance is by far and away the most developed part of the film, but even then it is not nearly given the attention it needs to flourish due to the numerous ongoing themes the film tries to explore. Furthermore, there is simply not enough chemistry between the two of them which makes it difficult to care about their romance. One of the film’s few bright sparks is the ever-reliable Toby Jones as Norman, the cinema’s resident projectionist.
Frequent Mendes collaborator Roger Deakins’s cinematography is immaculate, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do not disappoint with their score. It is therefore such a shame their fine work ultimately goes to waste on a film which should have been a sure bet in such capable hands. Yet, rather than recapture the feelings of joy and wonder which often comes from seeing films on the big screen in a packed auditorium, this is completely devoid of any charisma and charm, leaving nothing but an empty feeling inside. There will undoubtedly be many more films released in the coming years serving as a reminder of the power this medium can have on audiences, but this is one which misses the mark entirely.
Despite the best efforts of the cast and a very capable director, Empire of Light completely fails to dazzle due to its unfocused script, combining poorly developed social commentary with a half-hearted tribute to the beauty of cinema.