The Oscar-bait film too contrived even for awards voters, Sam Mendes’ follow-up to the acclaimed war film 1917 (2019) Empire of Light (2022) is a flat ode to the theatre made by some of the best industry professionals. Spanning the early 80s in the small British seaside town of Margate, we follow the workers of the quiet movie theatre including deputy manager Hillary (Olivia Colman), manager Donald (Colin Firth), projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), and bright-eyed new crew member Stephen (Michael Ward). We are mostly locked onto the world of Hillary, a depressive older woman burnt out and fading through life until a romance is sparked with the much younger Stephen.
Made with the best intentions with a world class crew and ensemble, Empire of Light stumbles not just in its underbaked racial and political underpinnings, but in its narrative contrivances that permeate every moment. Hillary is written into a dead end within 40 minutes, sucking the air out of the film before it even gets going. Mendes overreaches in so many narrative directions that no one moment is given the time it deserves, reducing everything to its thinnest ideas, making all the plot machinations nakedly visible.
There are many films inside this one, making it feel closer to a debut Sundance feature from an upstart filmmaker that is unsure whether they will ever make another film. Through its flat characters spouting unfelt political statements, Mendes has made a unmemorable film that takes for granted its extraordinary crew.
And enough cannot be said about the crew involved here; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross craft an interesting piano score that unfortunately never seeps deeply into the drama; greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakins has mastered his craft to an absurd degree that we should be thankful doesn’t get relegated to a TV screen just yet; the ensemble of Colman, Firth, Jones, and the breakout of Michael Ward is punching well above the script, finding emotional depths to their characters that were clearly underdeveloped on the page.
One of the best technical filmmakers working, Mendes has always been successful when working with quality screenwriters (Skyfall, Jarhead, American Beauty if that’s your thing) while still pursuing his own point of view, often surrounded by top-tier craftspeople. He has been able to create quality features without working as the screenwriter, but was clearly emboldened by his original screenplay Oscar nomination for 1917, a film that is effective more as a set piece art installation than as a work of screenwriting, to pen his follow-up feature.
Much has been made about Empire of Light being a love letter to the theatre, which is reductive at best. This film is as much a movie about the movies as Snowpiercer (2013) is a movie about trains. Cinema has enough love letters to itself, but too few ones of quality and substance that values the audience on the other end of that beam of light.
The racial politics of the film are tired and dated, with the anti-black violence made in service of a white character’s emotional development that is a disservice to both performers. The few instances of racialised violence do not even give Ward the respect of a reaction shot. There is also the issue of the depiction of Stephen’s mother Delia (Tanya Moodie) in the film, a character who does not speak to her son for almost its entirety, having more lines of dialogue with Colman than Ward. Mendes shows little maturity to handle these racial aspects of his film, souring any goodwill in its pursuits of bringing to light the racism of 1980s England.
Colman does better than any actor could with her extraordinary mix of subtle rage, but the script lends her or the other actors little assistance. Her performance in 2021’s The Lost Daughter (which she should’ve won an Oscar for last year), is a better demonstration of her quality at playing a depressive older woman.
Ward’s performance as Stephen is above the level given to him, as a purely contrived character that is more aggressively attached to the film’s writing faults and poor writing than any other character. Even with the quality of individual performance from Ward and Colman, the pair’s growing romance never garners genuine interest or stirred emotions as it is just another one of Mendes’ undercooked ideas in a film without a strong perspective.
Mendes never trusts his actors and, to a greater self-critique, his own penned characters, to develop the story and romance organically, ending up with a collection of contrivances. Empire of Light is a beautifully shot but unsubstantial feature that will quickly be forgotten, adding up to less than the sum of the parts with its top-tier cast and crew.
Empire of Light is in theatres now.