Empire of Light (2022)

Born of the pandemic during a bout of intense self-examination from writer/director Sam Mendes, Empire of Light is the story of a lost soul who finds an odd family within the theater where she works. It stars Olivia Colman as Hilary, the manager of an aging coastal seaside theater in the south of England who strikes up an unlikely romantic relationship with fellow theater employee Stephen (Michael Ward, Beauty), a young black man trying to find his place in an England enraged by the growing National Front movement of the early ‘80s.

"Empire of Light’s intentions never manage to rise above the fog of its failed execution"

Mostly content to spend off-work hours accompanied by the bleak solitude of her tiny apartment, Hilary eventually reveals that she is struggling with mental illness, while Stephen is faced with a constant barrage of discrimination and racism due to the color of his skin. And if that weren’t strife enough for the two, there’s the issue of unwanted sexual advances upon Hilary from her more-than-handsy boss (Colin Firth), a thread of forbidden love between Hilary and Stephen, an overarching theme about the healing power of movies, and an under-explored look at the importance of music to a community.

If it sounds like Mendes is attempting to take on a few too many weighty topics with Empire of Light, it’s because he is. And that’s a shame, because with a more well refined script and concise focus, the 1917 director could have pulled it off. After all, there are so many worthy attributes: a trio of memorable performances; Roger Deakins’s always impressive cinematography; the dignified beauty of the aging seaside theater with its grand lobby, lavish appointments, and a secret upstairs ballroom which allow the building to become a memorable character in and of itself. It’s worth pointing out that Empire of Light is the first script Mendes has written from scratch with no input from another writer.

Speaking of worthy performances, as we might expect from an Oscar-winning actress, Colman wrings the most from her bafflingly underwritten Hilary, a character who floats through a lithium-induced fog while desperately seeking human connection. Her eyes light up with excitement in the presence of Stephen, while Ward – a relative Hollywood newcomer – manages to make us buy into in his unlikely relationship with Hilary, despite their decades of age difference.Empire of Light (2022)

It would be a gross oversight not to mention the wonderful performance of Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Norman, the theater’s projectionist who takes his job extremely seriously. Despite his limited screen time, he very nearly steals the entire movie with his scant handful of scenes. He introduces Hilary – who oddly has never watched a single film at the cinema where she works – to the joy of film and how to find oneself in the refuge of cinema.

In one particularly enlightening scene Norman tells Hilary: “Look around you. This whole place is for people who want to escape. People who don’t belong anywhere else.” Though a bit too on the nose to be clever, the metaphor sums up what the entire film is about. Though his role is a minor one, what his character represents is what the film is sorely missing – empathy, meaning, and depth.

Like its over-medicated primary character, Empire of Light’s intentions never manage to rise above the fog of its failed execution. Sam Mendes’s love letter to his formative years growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s is completely out of focus with a scatter-brained script that has too many profound thoughts about too many heavy topics. A filmmaker of his caliber should know better. It makes for an awkward and frustrating watch as we see so much good buried amongst the bad.

2/5 stars

Film Details

Empire of Light (2022)

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, language and brief violence.
119 mins
: Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes
Olivia Colman; Micheal Ward; Colin Firth
: Drama

Memorable Movie Quote: "Look around you. This whole place is for people who want to escape. People who don’t belong anywhere else."
Theatrical Distributor:
Searchlight Pictures
Official Site: https://www.searchlightpictures.com/empire-of-light/
Release Date:
December 9, 2022
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: A drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s.


Empire of Light (2022)