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'Empire of Light' Review

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September 12, 2022
Hunter Friesen
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Empire of Light played at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release the film in theaters on December 09.

With Empire of Light, Sam Mendes further proves that he’s one of the best directors working today. He also proves that he should abandon his newfound lust for writing his own scripts, as that should be left in more capable hands.

It’s also hard to judge Mendes’ film on its own terms, as it comes at a time when filmmakers feel overwhelmingly compelled to tell their life stories through film. Just this year we have Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans), Richard Linklater (Apollo 10 1/2), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Bardo), and James Gray (Armageddon Time) offering insights into one of, or both of, their child and adult lives. We also can’t forget Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God making dents in last year’s Oscar race. And then there’s Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird… alright I think you get the idea.

With all the direct competition in the past and the present, Empire of Light crumbles under the weight of expectations and comparisons. It’s nowhere near being classified as bad, just underwhelming and forgettable once you also factor in all the talent involved both in front and behind the camera.

Whether they know it or not, the workers within the Empire Theater act as a sort of family. Roger Deakins’ lush cinematography (solidifying him and Mendes as the best working director/cinematographer pair) captures all the bells and whistles of this movie palace, which now stands on its last leg as the age of multiplexes rushes in. You can see how this place once was the entertainment capital of the coastal English town it resides in, with its staged screens and elaborate decorations.

At the helm is the self-entitled owner, Donald (Colin Firth), who never has much time for the rest of the employees. Hilary (Olivia Colman) is the de facto manager, even though she’s never watched a film during her tenure. A new recruit (Michael Ward) shakes things up a bit, unlocking romantic feelings within Hilary and some unsavory attitudes toward race and class within the community.

As with nearly all entries within this specific subgenre, Empire of Light explores the healing power within movies. Except, instead of purely emotional healing, the films playing within this cinema can also cure mental illnesses, which Hilary is afflicted with, and bigotry towards others. The messages within Mendes’ script, his first without a co-writer, are never connected as tightly as they should be, with several topical ideas floating around as loose fragments. If only he could have picked one because there are specific moments for each that are well-executed. But as a whole, they are less than the sum of their parts.

The weakness on the page doesn’t serve the actors well, with Colman falling into a bit of overacting for her character’s outbursts. She and Ward lack the necessary chemistry to make their relationship believable, with it mostly feeling like Mendes put them together simply because they’re outsiders.

Empire of Light exemplifies both the best and worst parts of cinema, in that it holds unbelievable power in certain moments and unbelievable artificiality in others. If Mendes goes back to solely directing his next feature (or at the very least co-writing with an esteemed partner), then the world will be in for an immense treat.

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