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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Empire of Light: Review

Empire of Light Synopsis: Withdrawn movie theater manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) endures struggles with her mental health condition. Her pessimistic worldview suddenly changes when she meets Stephen (Michael Ward), an optimistic young adult dealing with the vicious racial tensions of 1980s England.

Two outsiders in 1980s England find solace in one another during shifts in an illustrious movie theater in Empire of Light. Following his one-take war epic 1917, acclaimed director Sam Mendes's latest project showcases a nostalgic love letter to his mother and filmmaking's eye-opening impact during his formative years.

Ironically enough, Mendes joins other auteurs, like James Gray with Armageddon Time and Steven Spielberg with The Fabelmans, who recently articulated coming-of-age trials and tribulations through their cinematic craft. Filmmaking can be a wonderfully empathetic prism for unpacking complex insular dynamics from one's past, yet its inherent subjectivity can also conjure unintentionally sappy results (2021's Belfast is a prime example).

With Empire of Light, Mendes and his team conjure a sumptuous feast for the eyes. He and Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins paint every frame with remarkable precision, cultivating a wistful romanticism that transforms the dusty confines of an ancient movie theater into a poignant relic bursting with hope and aspiration. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross match the lavish yet restrained visuals with an impactful score that quietly lingers in each frame.

When all the technical elements blend cohesively, certain frames of Empire of Light exude expressive emotions (a nighttime firework display is drawn with the enchantment of a historic watercolor painting). Unfortunately, much of the film's visual splendor eventually gets lost in a listless concoction of flatlining sentiments.

Empire of Light is Mendes's first screenplay penned solely by him, and his writing inexperience clearly shows throughout much of the discombobulated final product. The film explores many intriguing plot threads, including a love affair between Hilary and Stephen, Stephen's daily dealings with racial discrimination, and Hilary's decaying mental state. Each could feel meaningful if dressed with layers of nuance. Instead, Mendes relies heavily upon didactic dialogue exchanges and clunky montages to forward much of the narrative.

It all ends up feeling woefully contrived. Mendes plays every emotional beat in broad strokes, swooning for grand revelations that never feel earned by the material's shortsightedness. He also struggles to imbue his characters with lived-in personalities.

Stephen, in particular, feels like an empty vessel of a character. He lacks agency outside of his half-baked relationship with Hilary, and his ongoing struggles with racial aggressors rarely receives time to breathe onscreen. Moreover, the character's treatment as a thinly-developed plot device comes off in poor taste considering the worthwhile dilemmas he faces. Even vulnerable performances from Oscar-winner Olivia Colman and emerging star Michael Ward can't compensate for the material's shortcomings.

Empire of Light is lushly crafted and noble in its intentions. However, those qualities can't save the film from being another self-serious award hopeful that stumbles in its pursuits.

Empire of Light is now playing in theaters.


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