FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE YET TO SEE EMPIRE OF LIGHT, THIS IS A NON-SPOILER REVIEW.
When Sam Mendes‘ new film Empire of Light was announced, it shot to the top of every critic’s list of Most Likely Oscar Contenders. It’s the follow-up to his much-loved World War 1 epic 1917. It’s a film about the magic of movies. And it has everyone’s favorite Oscar-darling Olivia Colman in the lead role. So, what’s stopping it from taking home every award at next year’s ceremony?
Apparently a lot. Or at least that’s what it seemed like after it premiered to middling reviews at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. And its narrative hasn’t gotten much better in the following months… It sits at a paltry 43% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this review. So, what went wrong with Empire of Light? And does it deserve more recognition than it’s getting?
WHAT IS EMPIRE OF LIGHT ALL ABOUT?
Empire of Light follows Hilary, a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen, a new employee longing to escape the provincial town where he faces daily adversity. Together they find a sense of belonging and experience the healing power of the movies.
IS EMPIRE OF LIGHT ABLE TO CAPTURE THE MAGIC OF THE MOVIES?
As the film begins we are toured around the landscape of this gorgeous, art-deco cinema and introduced to its eclectic employees… I was immediately drawn into Sam Mendes’ world. As someone who finds solace and excitement in the theater-going experience, I couldn’t help but find myself giddy at the idea of a movie surrounding just that. And as the thirty-minute mark came around, I had difficulty figuring out why all of these critics gave Empire of Light such a hard time. Was it a little surface-level and directionless? Sure. But, it was also beautifully shot (by the best cinematographer in the business, Roger Deakins, no less), its diverse cast and central romance were engaging and just spending time in that dreamy, magnificent movie house was enough to keep me fully satisfied.
WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THIS SCREENPLAY?
But, then Empire of Light takes a very strange turn. It extends far beyond its reach when it should have just basked in the glory of the Cinema itself. Mendes tries to tackle racism and mental illness head-on in such a direct and misguided manner, that he loses all sight of his purpose. It’s as if the writer/director decided he wanted to pen a love letter to his beloved craft, but then decided it wasn’t profound, interesting, or Oscar-baity enough. So, he threw a bunch of societal issues into a hat, picked out two, and gave one to each of his lead characters. This is how random his creative choices feel.
HOW IS OLIVIA COLMAN?
The unfortunate thing about this is that on nearly every level besides its screenplay… Empire of Light soars. Olivia Colman does what she does best… and that is, create a character that the audience can feel so many emotions for, despite the melodramatic trappings written on the page. Her Hilary is a sadly misunderstood woman yearning for meaning and affection. And even when she goes completely overboard, Colman can still pull us back into her embrace.
AND MICHAEL WARD?
Then there is her co-lead, Michael Ward, who is nothing short of revelatory here as Stephen. This character, who is on the verge of not just adulthood, but of living out his dreams… is only held back in this 80’s-set story, by the color of his skin. What Ward is able to accomplish with Stephen’s inner turmoil and external struggle, is so impressive, because Mendes has done this character zero favors. There is so little given to Ward to work with here… yet, somehow by his sheer charisma and tenderness, the actor is able to make this role pretty unforgettable.
DOES THIS FILM HAVE ANY OSCAR CHANCES? IS IT WORTH SEEING?
There are such moments of genius in both artistry and craft in Empire of Light, that I have a hard time dismissing it just for its deeply confused screenplay. Every time Mendes shifts his focus back on the Cinema and the 24 frames per second that have enraptured audiences for the last century and a half… his film is pure magic. But, when he loses sight of his intent, and heads down dark, dour paths that lead to nowhere of any real substance… his film is a total misfire.
So, does Empire of Light deserve more recognition than it’s getting? Yes… and no. I think its chances of getting any Oscar nominations now are slim to none. The only places I can see it sneaking in are for Colman for Best Actress or Deakins for Cinematography. But, if I were to vote… Michael Ward would be getting a nomination for Best Actor, as he was the real bright spot for me here. At the end of the day though, I would slightly recommend Empire of Light, especially if you are a big movie buff… though don’t go in with high expectations. This is a film that had so much potential and is filled with scattered moments of excellence, but it honestly needed a complete re-write before it even began production.
Empire of Light will be in Select Theaters December 9th, 2022.
For more Reviews, make sure to stay tuned to That Hashtag Show!