Empire Of Light Review – gloriously shot and well-acted but Sam Mendes’ script feels largely contrived

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Cinema is having a celebratory year in 2022, with three big studio films proclaiming to be a love letter to the movies: The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical story), Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (about PreCode Hollywood) and you could even say Downton Abbey: A New Era is a nod to the transition from silent films to talkies.

This one is another homage to the power of cinema and is actually set in a cinema in an English coastal town in the early 1980s. Considered a tumultuous time in the UK where British society was sharply divided by social classes, the economy was at its lowest point with high unemployment and international relations were just as turbulent during the Falkland Wars and its conflict in Northern Ireland.

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The world may be in chaos, but there’s always a place where people can escape and that is cinema. No matter what one’s personal circumstance is, one can always live vicariously through the characters in the movies. Strangely enough, cinema is just a job for Hilary (Olivia Colman) who manages Empire vintage cinema in a coastal town in Southern England. She simply goes through the motions in her day-to-day, even when it involves um, ‘servicing’ his boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), it’s just part of a daily grind (yes pun intended). Scenes of her doctor visits inform us that she had been admitted to a mental institution for schizophrenia and is taking medications.

Her humdrum life takes an interesting turn with the arrival of Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee at Empire that Hilary sort of takes under her wing. The metaphor of Stephen saving a little bird with a broken wing is pretty on the nose, but that’s the moment he and Hilary hit it off. Their budding friendship quickly grows into something romantic and sexual, which proves cathartic for Hilary that for a time she could forgo her mood-stabilizing Lithium. 

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Meanwhile, Stephen finds a sense of belonging in the Empire and in Hilary. He faces rampant racism on a daily basis, which again is presented in a matter-of-fact way here where he’s constantly harassed on the street. He never talks about it with his colleagues and while he’s at work, Stephen feels welcome and for the most part, safe, that is until something happens in the second act where none of his friends could protect him.

Human connection is the central theme in this story, written and directed by Sam Mendes. It’s a grand though not exactly novel idea but the script never quite reaches its intended greatness. No amount of beauty shots (courtesy of master DP Roger Deakins) can camouflage that. 

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Colman and Ward did their best to make their tentative relationship credible, but they can only do so much when the script is unwieldy and clichéd-ridden. I actually wish there were more scenes between Stephen and projectionist Norman (a rather underutilized Toby Jones). The themes of mental illness, racial prejudice, Thatcherism, etc. are largely surface-level, while the notion of the power of cinema feels contrived. I struggle to connect with the characters and their motivations, and all I can think of is how glaring this film aims for something profound. 

Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire is having a moment as of late as well, as it was featured in an episode of The Crown season 5 (as Dodi Fayed was one of its exec producers). Well, one of the subplots involves a regional premiere that Ellis puts together that becomes a sort of ‘breaking free’ moment for Hilary despite her head-scratching speech.

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I expected more from Mendes who has made truly great films like Road to Perdition, Skyfall, and 1917. Perhaps there is supposed to be something beautiful that the protagonist finally finds the time to watch and be moved by a film after working in a cinema for years. But for all the talk about the power of human connection though, she sits all by herself in the theater so it’s not really a communal experience.

The scene reminds me of the finale of Cinema Paradiso except that one feels genuinely personal and emotional, while this one is anything but. Overall, Empire of Light is trite and somber, seriously lacking the magical quality and sparkle that the glorious poster promises.

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Have you seen EMPIRE OF LIGHT? What did you think?

7 thoughts on “Empire Of Light Review – gloriously shot and well-acted but Sam Mendes’ script feels largely contrived

    1. I totally forgot that Trent and Atticus score this movie! I guess that’s the one thing I wasn’t disappointed with here, though honestly, I didn’t remember much about it either.

  1. Bummer that the film didn’t deliver, might still watch it when it hits streaming. I guess that’s why the studio isn’t pushing the film that hard, I totally forgot about until I saw your review here. I haven’t seen any promotion for it on any social platform or TV.

    1. Yeah I think it got drowned out by all the buzz for Avatar 2 which I heard is really good (I’m seeing it tomorrow!) There’s just nothing special about this one, though the trailer looked so darn good that it gave me such high hopes.

    1. Colman is still wonderful to watch but yeah, the script is just trite, unfortunately. It’s disappointing as I regard Mendes as a good director.

  2. Pingback: Alliance Lately: Issue No. 68 – The Minnesota Film Critics Alliance

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