On paper, Empire of Light looks perfect. It’s written and directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, whose last film, 1917, was a masterpiece. Mendes brings a mind-boggling production team with him, including Oscar winners Roger Deakins (cinematography), Lee Smith (editing), Alexandra Byrne (costumes), and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (original score) and it stars Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Not only is the team astounding, but the film is an homage to the beauty of cinema and is set in a seaside English town in the early ‘80s, which both hold potential for tonal and atmospheric bliss.
Unfortunately, the sum is far less than each of its parts, and never manages to come together as a whole experience worthwhile of all the talent associated with it.
Colman plays Hilary, the middle-aged assistant manager of an aging movie theater on the English coast. Hilary leads a relatively boring and lonely life, but when a new employee, Stephen, played by Michael Ward, arrives at the theater, he opens Hilary up to a whole new world. Stephen is young and black, and shares with Hilary both the good (music) and the bad (racism) elements that shape his life and outlook on the world. Hilary and Stephen forge a friendship that turns romantic, but Stephen soon learns that Hilary is carrying much more baggage than he can handle, and the journey of their relationship becomes fraught with societal and psychological obstacles.
The main problem with Mendes’s ambitious script is he is trying to wedge romantic, social, political and psychological dramas all into the same story and is not able to serve any single one the proper time or respect. There is the political and social commentary about race relations, the natural drama of two mismatched lovers, plus the overarching nostalgic and sentimental ruminations on the lost art of cinema and the beauty of a movie theater, which certainly feels even more relevant with each passing month. Each one of these could have sustained an entire film, but they are jammed in and glossed over, because Empire of Light’s truly central story is about something else altogether.
At its heart, Empire of Light is about Hilary’s mental instability and her outward struggle to maintain her sanity. It seems a little heavy-handed, but, in Olivia Colman’s genius hands, Hilary is all at once heartbreaking and tragic, and it is truly worth the price of admission to see her deliver another absolute masterclass performance that is certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.
But, unfortunately, Colman’s performance is baked into a film that, for all of its ambition and beauty, is an empty attempt at meaning, a film that is made up of single moments and emotions, never making a whole, never fulfilling as a complete thought.
That’s not to say it’s not gorgeous, as all the elements are just as magnificent as you would expect, but, sadly, despite Colman’s gargantuan performance that should be talked about for years, Empire of Light ends up being a disappointingly shallow and, sadly, overly pretentious failure.
Empire of Light is currently playing in theaters.