Film Review: Empire of Light (2022)

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light proves a self-indulgent trifle, even with Olivia Colman giving it both barrels

“Viewing static images rapidly in succession creates an illusion of motion, illusion of life…”

Empire of Light marks Sam Mendes’ debut as a solo screenwriter. And with a story that pays tribute to his mother and her struggles with mental health, you can see why he would want to keep a firm hand on the movie – also serving as director and co-producer. But sometimes it can be good to get an outside eye in there, even with material as ostensibly personal as this, for the film proves to be almost insufferably trite.

Set in the seaside town of Margate in the early 1980s, we follow the employees of the Empire Cinema, most notably Olivia Colman’s Hilary and Micheal Ward’s Stephen. She’s recovering from an unspecified breakdown, he’s black and as a putative love affair grows amidst the growing societal unrest of the violently racist far-right fringe and an increasingly brutal care system, they each bear witness to the other’s suffering.

And that is about as much fun as you’d imagine it to be. A lot of maudlin looks across cinema auditoria (Roger Deakins’ cinematography is admittedly gorgeous), symbolic connections over injured pigeons and anguished torment (from a distance) as Hilary gets sectioned (by Monica Dolan, no less) and Stephen gets assaulted – it comes to something when the (muted) highlight is Hilary giving her boss a handjob (an amusingly pompous Colin Firth).

There’s a hackneyed attempt to make us fall in love with “cinema” the way Mendes presumably did, through Toby Jones’ projectionist who gets lumbered with saccharine speechifying. And what should be an ecstatic moment of a late Damascene conversion feels precision-tooled for Oscar-baiting trailer footage. Despite the weightiness of the subjects it glances on, there’s nothing but surface level treatment.

That lacking depth of character strikes all around. The marvellous Tanya Moodie is utterly wasted as Stephen’s mother, despite the severity of what happens to him. And though Hilary is necessarily isolated due to her mental state, that means there’s nothing substantive for Colman to play off, to translate that torment into something that feels real. Not the one for me, at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *