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‘Empire of Light’ Movie Review: Sam Mendes’ Drama Projects Dim Romance

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Empire of Light marks 1917 filmmaker Sam Mendes‘ first movie that he wrote and directed solo. He drew rich talent in his cast and crew, painting a gorgeous cinematic experience to appeal to a couple of the senses. However, there’s a severe disconnect between his character crafting, thematic elements, and the greater narrative that doesn’t quite manage to hit the right emotional chord.

‘Empire of Light’ weaves romance and the power of cinema

'Empire of Light' Olivia Colman as Hilary looking at Micheal Ward as Stephen, shown from behind. They're standing on a rooftop.
Olivia Colman as Hilary | Searchlight Pictures

Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a cinema manager working in an aging movie theater in an English coastal town during the early 1980s. She’s soft-spoken and appears to have a good head on her shoulders to many on the outside. Meanwhile, Hilary is facing her own personal demons internally, as she confronts her own mental health issues.

A new employee named Stephen (Micheal Ward) starts working at the theater, but he yearns to escape the small town and the racism that he faces on the streets. Hilary and Stephen develop romantic feelings for one another, finding a sense of belonging with one another. However, it’s only a matter of time before their own personal tensions get in the way.

Discovering a passion for life on and off the silver screen

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Mendes depicts a dreamlike world of what it means to work in a movie theater in Empire of Light. He chronicles the typical day, rotating between an empty theater at opening, the rush of moviegoers excited to escape to another world, and the not-so-beautiful duty of cleaning after inconsiderate guests. The cinema previously contained more screens, but the building’s second floor is depicted as another world lost to time. Its beauty remains largely untouched, although it’s not the only place these characters find a sense of wonder. Stephen is amazed by the projectionist (Toby Jones) and all that goes into the images that hit the silver screen for audiences to enjoy.

There are plenty of other shenanigans going on at this movie theater. Disturbing power dynamics are at play above and below Hilary. She has regular sexual run-ins with her employer, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), in which she feels obligated to indulge. Nevertheless, she becomes smitten with Stephen, who reports directly to her. They both find liberation in one another’s company, opening up their hearts and minds for better or worse.

Empire of Light is all about new beginnings. Social, economic, and the passing of time all have a profound impact on the theater and those who keep it alive. Despite the age gap between Hilary and Stephen, they have plenty to teach one another. Rather than waiting for life to happen, they learn to pursue their greatest desires before those opportunities pass them by.

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‘Empire of Light’ is a forgettable sentimental drama

'Empire of Light' Colin Firth as Donald Ellis and Micheal Ward as Stephen. They're standing next to each other wearing suit and ties smiling in front of wall with wooden panels behind them
L-R: Colin Firth as Donald Ellis and Micheal Ward as Stephen | Searchlight Pictures

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Mendes wrestles with social unrest, the personal impacts of racism, and mental health. However, they all barely scratch the surface, walking a predictable path that doesn’t find anything particularly profound to say. These deep themes are interwoven into a romance that doesn’t feel entirely fleshed out, utilizing character motivations as reveals rather than an inherent piece of the puzzle that remains missing for far too long. Empire of Light meanders through its romance without any particular passion to speak of.

Nevertheless, it’s captured beautifully by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Much like the second floor of the theater, the film feels like a story lost to time. It has an undeniable soft beauty, accentuated with pops of color that allow the picture to come alive. It’s a particularly swoon-worthy visual aesthetic that depicts the beauty in Hilary and Stephen’s worlds, while still highlighting the darkness that looms over them. Meanwhile, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score elevates Empire of Light‘s dramatic moments, instilling soul into the movie when the script fails to do so.

Colman turns in an astounding performance, but when doesn’t she? Ward is empathetic and believable, but there’s a lack of romantic chemistry between the two characters. Empire of Light is a highly-manufactured love letter to the power of cinema that’s more interested in telling you how, rather than showing you why.

Empire of Light comes to theaters on Dec. 9.

Source: Cheat Sheet

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