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Empire of Light Review

December 9, 2022 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Empire of Light film still Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.
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Empire of Light Review  

Directed By: Sam Mendes
Written By: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 113 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R rating is for sexual content, language, and brief violence

Olivia Colman – Hilary
Micheal Ward – Stephen
Colin Firth – Donald Ellis
Toby Jones – Norman
Hannah Onslow – Janine
Tanya Moodie – Delia
Crystal Clarke – Ruby

In the new Searchlight Pictures release, Empire of Light, Sam Mendes bites off way more than he can chew in his attempt to weave a heady, intimate period drama with deeply emotional themes. Rather than focusing on one big idea, he smooshes way too many together. Many of the major themes in Empire of Light could have worked as a standalone movie, but Mendes unwittingly piles so much onto his plate that it’s all messily dripping off.

Beginning at the tail end of 1980, Hilary (Colman) is the duty manager of a coastal England movie palace. She is also on medication due to clinical schizophrenia. Hilary is coerced into an unwilling affair with her austere and married boss, Donald Ellis (Firth).

Hilary’s spirits are soon lifted by the arrival of a new young employee at the Empire Theatre, Stephen; a young Black British man who is looking for work and seeks to apply to university. The two eventually bond and have an affair. Hilary begins to taper off her medication, which worsens her mood swings. As a black man, Stephen is also a victim of racism as tensions bubble over to the 1981 Brixton Riots and the rise of skinhead culture in Britain’s youth.

On top of all the other big ideas that Mendes tries and fails to communicate is another shoehorned message about the magic of cinema. In the current era, the sense of community and togetherness that cinema can bring to society appears to be declining. Movies are truly a universally shared pastime. However, theatrical experience and businesses have taken some hits in recent years. A story that explores the magic of cinema and its power to uplift people’s spirits and bring them together in times of social discord, is a solid premise that continues to have the utmost relevance today.

However, that message gets lost in the multitude of other ideas Mendes attempts to showcase in his overly messy plot. The coastal movie palace setting is more or less incidental to the rest of the film. Stephen’s passion for cinema amounts to little more than a quaternary subplot. It fails to connect to the rest of the film. When a significant moment occurs where someone finally discovers the magic of watching a movie, it happens with insufficient buildup.
Considering that Stephen is a prospective college student attempting to get accepted to university, there is a lost opportunity to tie the theme of movie magic to his education prospects.

Exploring the importance of cinema’s communal shared experience is a great idea, but most of Empire of Light focuses instead on Hilary’s struggle. Hilary’s disorder and her exploitation by an odious boss also could serve as its own feature. Because Empire of Light spins too many plates in the air, Hilary’s schizophrenia, the racial tensions in 1981 England, Hilary and Stephen’s relationship, and Stephen’s hopes to leave town for a better future, are never given the proper time to breathe and come full circle.

Midway through the movie, Mendes shifts perspectives from Hilary to Stephen. As a result, Hilary’s emotional journey becomes lost in the grander plot, when most of the first half leans heavily into her ordeal. She almost disappears into the background until a tragic incident occurs.

One redeeming aspect of the film is Olivia Colman’s dedicated, authentic performance of a middle-aged woman suffering from chronic schizophrenia. Her performance feels genuine and legitimate in a way that previous cinematic attempts to portray the mental disorder have not. Despite an overly messy script hindering Colman’s character, she delivers an emotional, empathetic, believable, and well-rounded performance as Hilary.

Of course, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is unsurprisingly exceptional and majestic. He does a fantastic job immersing the picture in the era of 1980s Britain. Empire of Light is beautifully shot. The Empire Theatre, which has seen better days, still retains some unspoken magic. Deakins and Mendes’ pure love for the theatrical experience shines throughout the film.

As the sole credited writer of the film, Empire of Light comes off as a case of the artist growing too close to his subject. Mendes likely needed a bit more distance from the material or another writer to polish up his story and finds its core elements. As it stands, Empire of Light is a movie with great-looking cinematography, solid technical aspects, and talented actors, with a clunky story that tries to do way too much. By depicting too many ambitious themes, the various individual subplots do not receive the proper time they deserve to truly gel.

Empire of Light opens in theaters on December 9.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
Empire of Light has building blocks of what could have been several great movies. However, it never focuses on one specific theme long enough to give it a satisfying look. Furthermore, the whole movie magic aspect plays like it got shoehorned in late in the process, after stitching together the ideas of several other screenplays and could have been easily discarded from the narrative. It's a shame, considering that the message of a shared communal experience that movies can create is so important, and one that feels even more significant than ever in the present day. Yet that idea gets lost throughout the jumbled milieu depicted in Empire of Light