Olivia Coleman in the film Empire of Light. Credit: Searchlight Pictures

In the attempt to include a variety of themes and topics, the film refuses to go beyond surface level and provide any actual meaningful commentary.

As we enter awards season, a recurring theme of several new film releases appears to be cinema itself. Alongside Damien Chazelle’s epic Babylon and Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award contender The Fabelmans, Sam Mendes’ new film attempts a similar reflection into the movie industry. However, for a film intended to be a love letter to the cinema, very little is shown of this other than the odd scene. Furthermore, the film has not achieved much popularity, having flown under the radar of most moviegoers. 

Empire of Light follows the staff at a cinema in Margate. It specifically focuses on Hilary (Olivia Colman), a woman struggling with mental illness and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a younger black employee victim of heightened racism in Thatcher-era Britain. The two form an unlikely relationship, soundtracked by an atmospheric score and some well placed songs from the likes of Bob Dylan and The Specials.

I can’t envisage anyone coming out of Empire of Light with any strong opinions, positive or negative. A major reason for this is, to put it simply, that the film is a bit of a mess. A film that covers such weighty topics as racism and mental illness should have far more of an emotional impact, however, Empire of Light’s attempt at an inclusive variety of themes and topics causes it to dilute all of them, leading to the overwhelming feeling that none of these important issues were given enough undivided attention and focus. It’s as if Mendes wanted to include a soft acknowledgement of these aspects but wasn’t willing to go beyond surface level and provide any actual meaningful commentary.

The main issue with the film is its screenplay. Dialogue is pretty ham-fisted, and the frustrating cliche of characters having a random interest in poetry in an attempt to cover up poor writing and attach some sort of faux-profoundness to interactions is used extensively. Olivia Colman is really the only actor whose character has anything to sink her teeth into and gives a solid performance, but her co-star Micheal Ward’s character Stephen is the biggest victim of underwriting. Despite Ward’s likeable presence, Stephen’s character as a whole just doesn’t make much of an impact. Characters in his life and aspects of his person are introduced, but only fleetingly or without any real depth. Everything just feels impersonal and underdeveloped.

The only true highlight of the film, solidified by its recent Oscar nomination, is the cinematography by frequent Mendes collaborator Roger Deakins. While the film as a whole fails to effectively capture the magic of cinema, Deakins manages to translate this beauty onto the screen through his camerawork. The shots that feature this magic are some of the best of the film, and manage to achieve a feeling of awe that is rare to find. In general the cinematography is understated and beautiful, really capturing the setting and intended tone of the film.

Empire of Light isn’t exactly a bad film, despite its flaws, just a very unremarkable one. The film features strong sound design and cinematography and touches on some interesting topics that a stronger film would have made better use of. Unfortunately though, this wasn’t the film to do so and ended up being a rather forgettable watch.

2/5 stars

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