There’s no denying that Empire of Light is a beautifully shot film but there’s something about the Sam Mendes picture that feels off.
I’m gonna be honest here in that this is the film in which I had to fight to stay awake. When one is running on little-to-no sleep, films need to be engaging to keep one’s attention. Factor in Sam Mendes at the helm and Olivia Colman in a leading role, this film should not have landed with a thud as it did upon my viewing. I’m gonna do my due diligence and watch it again when I’m not running around Toronto and maybe it’ll make all the difference in the world. But for now, I give Sam Mendes points for trying–unfortunately, there’s just not enough here.
Mendes and Roger Deakins reteam for their fifth collaboration. When Deakins is lensing a picture, it comes with high expectations. Mendes takes audiences back to a time in the early 1980s that feels like it no longer exists anymore–well, aside from the racism. It might feel like the racism comes out of the blue but if you’ve seen Blinded by the Light, you already know how terrible racism was in England during this era. Instead of the more obvious London, we’re taken to elsewhere along the coast in Southern England. Hilary (Olivia Colman) works at the Empire Cinema, a movie palace with two working screens. She takes new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) under her wing as the two start bonding with each other over movies and music.
Mendes writes the role of Hilary specifically for Colman. Don’t let anyone tell you that Colman’s casting on The Crown was for nothing! No matter what project she’s in, the actress finds a way to elevate the material with her performance.
The racism in the film comes against the backdrop of what’s been happening over the past few years. It’s no surprise, really, that it makes it into the script. As much as we would love for racism to become extinct, the reality is that this is probably never going to happen. In any event, Mendes takes a different approach then the aforementioned Blinded by the Light. Beyond this, Mendes uses the film to say something about power dynamics, particularly with Empire manager Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). He abuses all of his employees and despite being in a marriage, he forces Hilary to have sex with him. One could look at the film being a response to everything happening in 2020 on top of the #MeToo movement.
Dreamland, a former cinema, plays home to the film’s fictional Empire. This is one of those lucky finds that led Mendes to rework the film to the location. Gone is a balcony scene and added in is a scene taking place in the ballroom. Behind the scenes, production designer Mark Tildesley gives the location a theatrical makeover. The one thing that Dreamland could not give the film is the Empire’s lobby overlooking the coast. No, they found this a few doors down.
It’s interesting to see how the pandemic is inspiring filmmakers to revisit their childhoods. There’s something about nostalgia, right?!? Kenneth Branagh did it with Belfast and Steven Spielberg also did it with The Fabelmans. Mendes unveiled his film during Telluride and my only regret is that I don’t like it more. Would it be different if Sam Mendes actually made a film about his own childhood rather than certain themes? Quite possibly. But again, I’m going to watch it again with a fresh set of eyes. I hope to find something else beyond Colman’s performance, production design and the wonderful photography from Deakins. One theme that Mendes explores with his script is chosen families. In this instance, it is the employees working at the Empire.
Despite the film’s flaws, Empire of Light is a reminder that the cinema was here before us and it will be here after us, no matter what streaming services have to say about the conversation.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Sam Mendes
CAST: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, with Toby Jones and Colin Firth
Empire of Light held its Canadian premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations program. Searchlight Pictures will release the film on December 9, 2022. Grade: 3/5
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