‘Empire of Light’ Review: The Balcony Should Stay Closed

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Empire of Light, a misguided effort to show the magic of cinema during a difficult time in England, from director Sam Mendes.
User Rating: 4

One of the worst words I can read in a critique of art, specifically film, is “pretentious.” It’s a redundant sentiment in a field designed by a creator to garner a response from others. The frequency in which the term has been used has made it feel hollow at best and a lazy descriptor at worst. I’m not going to call Empire of Light pretentious, as writer/director Sam Mendes is too interesting a filmmaker to be so casually dismissed. Still, he can be pretty precious with his material, which has not paid off well with this effort. Despite many great components involved, this attempt to deliver a story about life, love, and the magic of cinema is his weakest effort yet.

Set in the early 1980s, on the south coast of England, Olivia Colman stars as Hilary, an employee at a movie theater. As we come to understand, Hilary is a lonely, middle-aged woman with a history of depression and other factors that have affected her life. She lives alone and is having an affair with the theater’s manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). A change in the status quo occurs with the arrival of Stephen (Lovers Rock’s Micheal Ward), a young black man hired on as a ticket-taker, and he immediately catches the eye of Hilary. The two soon form a bond, which is upset by various forms of drama in their lives.

empire of light

The timing is significant for a few reasons. The theater could be considered fancy, as there are only a few screens, with at least one being large enough to host premieres. Given what we learn about this location, the community once saw it in high regard. With that in mind, it’s a transitional stage for seeing a certain level of prestige associated with this theater, given the casual nature of audience members showing up for weekly releases in a far less glorified manner.

Another prominent element in this story and time period is both the rise of more multicultural community members and the subsequent negative response occurring in the form of open racism and violent protests (a symptom of the changes resulting from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, which clearly has thematic ties to the world of today). Sadly, Empire of Light doesn’t want to explore why this is important. Since this aspect of the film is introduced early on, Stephen obviously falls victim to various forms of bigotry. However, when considering how this affects the other characters around him, there’s little more than the notion of it being awkward to witness.

This thematic plotline represents much of the film’s attempts to connect different strands involving the ensemble. As a result, between characters who possess only one or two definable characteristics and the lack of a unifying theme suggesting more than just broad platitudes about life, Empire of Light feels like a very shallow experience. It becomes more irritating to consider when the movie seems to have such an obvious center point that is not capitalized on.

empire of light

These characters all work at a movie theater, yet none seem to have much to say about this. Beyond some general sentiments amounting to “wasn’t that good?” for a film that wants to show how the power of movies can illuminate the lives of those around it, this is not what’s happening here. Toby Jones plays the theater’s projectionist, Norman, and one has to wonder if he just wandered in from another movie set. His conversations have some meaning, but they also feel random. Hillary notably doesn’t watch the films, so by the time the movie decides her character needs to, what should be cathartic ends up feeling like a requirement based on the script.

Now, even if the power of movies wasn’t intended to be a primary motivation for this film (and that’s a big if), the love story that develops hardly lifts off the ground. It’s not for lack of trying on the part of Colman and Ward, but whatever we’re supposed to see in these individuals regarding the wounded aspects of their characters doesn’t register here. Hilary and Stephen may share some connection, but it’s too flimsy, and there are too many other things happening in this story, many of which seem inherently more interesting.

empire of light

Almost as if it is meant to confuse me even more, Mendes has assembled a lot of excellent talent for this project. Beyond his own bonafides, the film is shot by Roger Deakins, edited by Lee Smith (1917, Dunkirk), and features a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. No doubt, the film has its share of cinematic moments, and the music fits what the story is trying to do. And yet, there’s nothing to truly help this film stand out. Whatever Mendes felt in making a movie like this (his first screenplay as a solo writer as well), something is missing to bring everything going on together.

Another term I don’t like using is “Oscar bait,” as it implies there’s a sole reason why a collection of filmmakers and performers spent time assembling an entire feature film. Sam Mendes is at a point where he can make whatever project he feels is worth his time, but it’s a shame that so much of Empire of Light rings false. It’s the kind of film that would epitomize what people think movies that win awards are all about. Were this some 90s effort coming from Miramax, that may have been closer to the truth. As it stands today, all I see is a rundown theater.

Empire of Light opens in select theaters starting December 9, 2022.

empire of light

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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