by Robbie Jones
Sam Mendes’ cinematic output for the last 10 years has sat comfortably in the category of spectacle, from the thrills and kills of the James Bond franchise to the Oscar-winning WW1 epic 1917. With Empire of Light, Mendes returns to a far more intimate level of storytelling. Sadly, his latest effort gets off to a strong start before it falls on its face.
The film follows Hillary (Olivia Colman), the duty manager of a cinema in a small coastal town. Outside of work, Hillary suffers from severe loneliness in her personal life, her only relationship being that of a sexual nature with her manager (Colin Firth), one that she doesn’t seem all too comfortable with. Things change for Hillary when she meets new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward), who sparks new life into her with a new friendship and burgeoning romance, though happiness is short-lived as Hillary’s mental health issues rear their ugly head, while Micheal struggles against the racism of Thatcher’s Britain.
At its heights, Empire of Light is an enigmatic, cosy love letter to the cinema – not ‘cinema’, in the same way, that directors such as Steven Spielberg have dedicated personal stories to the art form, but to the physical location of the cinema; the Empire is a warm, loving place, and the film is often at it’s best when the employees are sitting around, having a chat about the topics of everyday life, or particular projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) is explaining the intricacies of projecting film. It extends an invitation into the comfort of this group who enjoy each other’s company and their profession oh so much, with Hillary and Stephen’s blossoming relationship at the heart of it.
It should be no surprise to anyone that national treasure Olivia Colman knocks it out of the park yet again; it’s truly incredible how, over time, she’s turned that signature passive-aggressive smile into a real acting weapon. When she uses it to suppress the erratic nature of Hillary’s mind, Colman tells us everything we could possibly need to know. It’s riveting work, and Colman is bound to receive a third consecutive Oscar nomination. It isn’t easy to match Olivia Colman, but Micheal Ward is nothing short of an exceptional screen partner. He brings true depth to Stephen’s ambition, his passion and his quiet rage. It is a stunning performance, and the pair complement each other absurdly well. They share a couple of short, discreet but rousing sex scenes that accentuate the raw power of simple touch. It’s an electrifying romance that does wonders for the film. The beauty that stems from the relationships and settings that are shot masterfully by the great Roger Deakins, who does what he does best and insists on providing one of the best-looking films of the year.
Unfortunately, Empire of Light struggles deeply with the tonal whiplash of the stories and themes it’s trying to juggle. A feel-good first act leads into an extended period dedicated to Hillary’s mental health struggles, which is suitably intense and leads to some of Colman’s best work, but as the intensity grows, the pacing is thrown off as the film feels as though it’s coming to a close. At that point, it loses steam and fails to recover. In the midst of this, the film tries – not very hard – to implement a focus on the racist attitudes towards Micheal, be it in the street or at work. In a vacuum, these scenes are powerful, but in the grand scheme of things, they serve as nothing more than a secondary plot device mostly designed to push forward the white lead. It’s a clumsy decision to dedicate time to this subject without the care it needs, which puts the character through an unnecessary amount of trauma and injustice for the sake of a white woman and her perspective.
A stunning first act makes Empire of Light feel like a work of art; the remaining two acts reveal it to be a superficial, uneven story, an inescapable disappointment even with the strength of incredible lead performances and gorgeous cinematography to carry it through to the end.
Empire of Light screened as part of BFI London Film Festival
It is out 13th January 2023