Sam Mendes’s “Empire of Light” is a love letter to theaters themselves and the significance they hold. [Film Fest 919]

Empire of Light immediately had me on its side because I too work at an independent, two-screen cinema that features grand Beaux Arts architecture, an eclectic group of regulars, and perhaps an even more eclectic staff. Operating as a sort of safe space for the employees, being able to enter a world not of the films being shown themselves, but recognizing the magic of the venues in which the films are shown first and foremost. The smell of the freshly popped popcorn, the creaky, old architecture of a grand period of exhibition long gone by, but impeccably preserved, the musty, but comforting smell of the theater itself. I couldn’t look away from Empire of Light from its opening credits for the sheer fact of just how much it understood the small things that I can’t always explain about why I find comfort in my day job, both the job itself, but more of the setting of it too. I felt seen by Sam Mendes.


L-R: Toby Jones and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Set at the tail end of 1980, in a coastal village in Kent, in the southeast of England, lies a grand, but unassuming cinema, The Empire. Featuring two screens, an ever rotating repertoire of films, and a friendly staff, it’s a community gathering place for those looking for an escape from the mundanity of life. Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is the duty manager of the Empire, serving under the general manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). Taking on a new ticket taker, Stephen (Micheal Ward), Hilary forms a bond with the young man as they bond over their struggles, dreams, and loneliness in the small town. Hilary is forced to confront her deteriorating mental health in the wake of a previous hospitalization, while Stephen begins to attract more attention as a black man in a quickly changing England during the rise of Thatcher and white nationalism.


L-R: Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

From the opening moments of Empire of Light, there’s an ethereal feeling to the entire affair. There’s a poetry to Sam Mendes’ direction and understanding of the setting, but more importantly to that of Roger Deakins’ unsurprisingly exceptional cinematography. Saying Deakins is one of the best cinematographers to ever live is indeed like saying water is wet, but it cannot go without stating how much of his excellence is imbued into Empire of Light, and fittingly so. For a film about the love of not just movies, but the theaters themselves, having someone who is so clearly enamored with the artform, so completely taken with the optics of the moving image, so beautifully in tune with the actual empire of light that film brings to the table, it’s truly one of the most beautifully shot pictures of the year.

Again, water is wet, etc.

Empire of Light is also given auditory excellence through the truly incredible musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. While Reznor and Ross’ early scoring work was a more searing indictment on the state of conventional film composition, Empire of Light feels like the natural evolution of Reznor and Ross’ musical style in morphing the wondrous, almost Desplat-style flutter with that of their heavier scores produced for the likes of David Fincher. It fits the ever-changing narrative of Empire of Light, so much so that it helps with easing some of the more abrupt shifts that sometimes disrupt the flow. That’s how good of a score was written.
In other water news, Olivia Colman also delivers a wonderful performance at the center of this film with newcomer Micheal Ward standing tall right beside the Academy Award-winner. On paper, this is a relationship that shouldn’t work (Mendes understands that), but there is a special chemistry between the two actors that makes this unlikely pair work, perhaps more on a spiritual level than that of a romantic one, but as the film goes on, the logistics soon begin to set in for the protagonists.


L-R: Colin Firth and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Where Empire of Light does begin to struggle a bit is in how many different stories it seeks to tell at once, and losing out on the sort of depth and pacing that could’ve made the film really click as something I could truly love. Flashing between Hilary’s mental illness, as well as the changing racial tension in the UK due to the rise of Thatcherism are indeed two things that can take place and be true at the same time, neither are given the amount of breathing room necessary to feel as consequential than if Mendes were to have tackled just one story at a time. Hilary’s plot seems much more stable and fleshed out, because I simply am not looking to Sam Mendes for his viewpoint on rising racist fascism. There isn’t much he has to say outside of “racism is bad,” and while it is indeed an admirable view (or at least a baseline decent view), Mendes lacks the understanding and experience to be able to truly give Stephen the time and sympathy needed to make this plotline work.


L-R: Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

However, in the grand scheme of Empire of Light, it still comes together as a love letter not to that of any two people, or even film itself (we have plenty of those movies out there), but one to the theaters in which we experienced these magical moments on screen, and the importance that comes with these venues. Mendes has assembled an all-star cast and crew to write the loveliest, most emotionally touching letter to this, and it hooked me from the start. It’s unfortunately brought down by Mendes’ inability to focus on one subject at a time, leaving the actual narrative at the center of Empire of Light not always up to snuff with the impeccably crafted piece around it, but it doesn’t change the immaculate feelings I felt with Mendes’ vision of the world of the Empire.

Screened during Film Fest 919 2022.
In theaters December 9th, 2022.

For more information, head to the official Searchlight Pictures Empire of Light webpage.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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