Movie Review: Empire of Light

Does Olivia Colman (THE LOST DAUGHTER; THE FAVOURITE) record audiobooks? If so, I want to buy one. She’s got such a mellifluous voice. The same goes for Colin Firth (OPERATION MINCEMEAT; SUPERNOVA). The Oscar-winning thespians have teamed up with Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes (1917; SPECTRE) in a film that he wrote, directed and produced. Unfortunately, EMPIRE OF LIGHT is less than the sum of its parts… a lot less.

The time is 1980, and Hilary Small (Colman) works as a duty manager at the Empire Cinema in Margate, an elegant, old school cinema that has seen better days. A dedicated and conscientious employee, it’s a bit of an open secret amongst her co-workers that she’s also having sex in the office with their manager, Donald Ellis (Firth). It’s also an open secret that she struggles with bipolar disorder for which she has been prescribed lithium by her doctor. When Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, begins working at the cinema, the two take a shining to each other, bonding over their appreciation of the old worldliness of the Empire. With Hilary beginning to feel good about herself, she decides to make changes in her life, one of them being to stop taking her medication.

Ah, if only Mendes would have stuck to this storyline, EMPIRE OF LIGHT would have been an interesting movie. Unfortunately, he brings in a number of other threads that never go anywhere and only serve to muddle the basic premise of the story. Stephen, we learn, wants to become an architect. Does he look at the dilapidated parts of the cinema and share his vision with Hilary? No. His ambition just dangles in the wind, never to be explored further. Stephen also experiences some very overt racism. Does Hilary rally the troops to come to his defense? No. For the most part, she watches from the sidelines. (Maybe that’s actually a good thing though, because haven’t we already seen enough movies about White saviours?) Stephen shows an interest in film projection and takes a lesson from the Empire’s long-time projectionist, Norman (Toby Jones, FIRST COW). Is this “Cinema Paradiso on the English Coast”? It is for much of the film. And Norman, we learn towards the end of the film, has his own baggage that he’s dealing with. Does he do anything about it? No. He just throws it out there too.

This is the problem with EMPIRE OF LIGHT. It’s painfully unfocused and even the engaging performances by Colman, Firth and Ward, and the artistic camerawork by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (BLADE RUNNER 2049; 1917) can’t save this film from unspooling onto the floor into a tangled heap of celluloid. Hilary’s mental fragility and her and Stephen’s interracial relationship would have been enough. It didn’t need everything else.

EMPIRE OF LIGHT opens in Hong Kong on March 2nd. You can safely give this one a miss. It’s a mess.

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