empire of light

PFF31 Review: Empire Of Light

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Fantastic performances create a mesmerizing cinematic presentation in Empire of Light, an uneven film that has frustratingly inconsistent approaches to both character and plot.

An old classic cinema set in a small English seaside serves as the backdrop for a budding romance among two employees (played by Olivia Colman and Michael Ward) in Sam Mendes’ latest. Empire of Light mostly centers around Colman’s character of Hilary as a lonely cinema worker who longs for affection, her performance one that is executed with the warmth and precision one would expect from Colman. There are times where she dazzles and the empathy meter is high, especially in scenes with Ward who gives his most heartfelt performance yet, and she has perhaps the best monologue of any film in the last year here. But what is most frustrating about Empire of Light is how various themes are introduced and tackled haphazardly, from mental health to racism, without the desired connections to them all coming together. It’s as though Mendes has melded multiple ideas together and thrown in a nostalgic old theater in hopes that viewers would look at the total product and simply say “ah, yes… cinema!” 

The cinematography is stunningly beautiful throughout with both the theater and the town it is set in transporting viewers to the time period, especially when you factor in the resplendent score. That’s what makes the issues with the script so frustrating and obvious, the scattershot plot ideas weakening Mendes’ work and the actors’ stellar performances (everyone is great). Empire of Light ultimately ends up feeling like a treatment that needed more work, more meat to make it a worthy “ode to the movies.” The very message it attempts to sell viewers on, the power of cinema, is ironically counteracted by Mendes’ somewhat empty vessel. That’s not to say that the film isn’t delightful; the characters were never not intriguing and I would watch Colman read a CVS receipt. But you can’t help wanting more from the filmmaker and long for what could have been.

Empire of Light hits theaters Friday.

Rating: 3/5

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