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Empire of Light ★★



Director: Sam Mendes

CastOlivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth

Release13th January 2023

After the peak of COVID, filmmakers seem keen to reinforce the importance and magic of cinema within the stories they craft. Kenneth Branagh’s poignant offering from last year, Belfast. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming love letter The Fabelmans. Now it’s the turn of director Sam Mendes as he returns from the lean, technically accomplished warzone that was 1917 to the low-key but no less fractious South Coast of England in the 1980s.

Its teaser trailer may have implied a straight-up tribute to the movies, yet the overreaching ambitions that slowly emerge in Mendes’ first solo screenplay quickly leave Empire of Light plunged into darkness.

Once a vital fixture of the Margate seafront, it watches over; the Empire cinema inhabited here mirrors the emotional turmoil of its primary workers, with both structure and people in dire need of being revitalised. Where the screens have been sadly downscaled, so have the reserves of positivity. This is epitomised by the plight of Olivia Colman’s Hilary. Her fake happy commitment to her job title and colleagues is unwavering in the wake of her inner demons recently taking hold, which is shamelessly exploited by her grotesque grump of a manager Mr Ellis (Colin Firth).

The arrival of Stephen offers a glimmer of hope in brightening up her seemingly mundane existence (Micheal Ward). A bonding session within a defunct space of the cinema is telling, with many a pigeon now calling it home. One’s broken wing doubles as a visual motif for the repair needed within Hilary’s emotional state of mind, alongside the broader societal damage being done by the National Front as they viciously enforce their rotten rhetoric. Making the admission, she starves herself in the wonder of the movies despite her profession. Hilary doesn’t bank on an unlikely romance to stoke a similar feeling within her harsh reality.

Scene from Sam Mendes' Empire of Light

Like any distinctive arthouse cinema, the interiors here are lush and lavish with the combination of Roger Deakins’ (Empire of Light is his fifth collaboration with Mendes) exquisitely lit cinematography, alongside the stirring score crafted by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross regularly leaving you marvelling at the sights. Unfortunately for Sam Mendes, his execution in interweaving many a sensitive subject matter into the story is a good eyesore in comparison.

It’s a somewhat competent effort elevated by a superior aesthetic. When it sticks to Toby Jones’ soulful interjections from projection and the initial fleshing out of the Hilary/Stephen romance, the second Mendes cobbles together a mishmash of sexual harassment, racism and mental health, you may be left utterly bewildered by the half-hearted handling. The message of catharsis through cinema implied early on feels bizarre in its final context, with the tonal shifts lurching from psychological chamber piece to dumbed-down ‘white saviour’ drama when racism rears its ugly head, blurring any sense of a clear narrative intention.

The talented cast assembled deserve better than this messy script for all their commitment. With Mendes rather fond of his poetry readings, Olivia Colman, like her director, strives for the material to be transcendental through her solid portrayal of Hilary. Bar a glorious stand-off at the halfway point that riffs on Shakespeare, there’s just no escaping how underdeveloped her character struggles and motivations are; as a result, hampering the central romance with Micheal Ward’s Stephen, who is just as ill-served. When the film suddenly looks to offer compelling social commentary, its decision to incorporate his family members into the third act is, at best, frustratingly neat, at worst, bordering on the offensive in its handling.

The odd flicker of quality may illuminate like the New Year’s Eve fireworks Hilary and Stephen enjoy together, but Empire of Light is ultimately a significant misfire from Mendes.

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