EMPIRE OF LIGHT
Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Tom Brooke
Director: Sam Mendes
There is something so pure and comforting about an Olivia Colman performance because she injects such added humanity into all of her films. Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is a film that relies too heavily on that humanity without fleshing out a proper story. The setup is lovely, but at the midway point, the film almost becomes something completely different. Even the cinematography by Roger Deakins (who creates the beautiful opening credits) feels like it shifts. The story eventually branches out beyond its means, rushing to some unnecessary conclusions. Sometimes, less is more.
Empire Of Light is the definition of lipstick on a pig. From a technical standpoint, it is flawless. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is stunning, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is magical. Micheal Ward is great too, but Olivia Colman is fantastic, even by her standards. That said, the script fails this film. It's not the worst thing ever written, but it juggles too many barely related concepts, including an underdeveloped love story, a poorly written study of mental health, and half-assed racial politics. Admittedly, the “power of cinema” stuff worked on me, but this movie is just weak Oscar bait.
For a cinephile, a film billed as “a love letter to the magic of cinema” seems like a no-brainer. However, despite beautiful cinematography and the art deco design, Empire of Light is such a mundane movie for boomers that I expected to be handed an AARP brochure when it ended. Not only is it a bore, but it’s a scattershot approach to various unrelated things that writer-director Sam Mendes seemingly cares about. Is it about cinema, racism, or mental illness? It’s about all of them and none of them, with Mendes failing to give us a reason to care as much as he does.
While Empire of Light is often beautiful to look at and boasts a beautifully composed score (when it’s heard, anyway), the overall experience is just a bit dry. That’s not to say it’s entirely boring or devoid of meaning, but it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about, subtextually. Love, desire, mental health, white supremacy – these are all concepts the movie features but doesn’t use in effective ways to enhance the story. Meandering in some films can be a good thing, if it’s the point; unfortunately, this film doesn’t seem to have much of a point at all.
Empire of Light is a finely crafted film that, while touching on a number of subjects, fails to fully explore any of them. Even with outstanding performances from Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, the story’s refusal to commit to any of its ideas overshadows the entire project. Somewhat lesser than the sum of its parts, the final product does not completely live up to its potential. Still, there is plenty to love, including top notch cinematography by Roger Deakins and impressive technical work from director Sam Mendes and his crew, making this a strong awards season contender.
This film was reviewed by Nick, Adriano, and Quentin as part of Bitesize Breakdown's coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.