Colman gives one of the year’s best performances, but Empire of Light fails to connect a turbulent time and why cinema offers one salvation.
We review the film Empire of Light, which does not contain any significant spoilers.
I’m usually a person who rolls their eyes at anyone who loves to throw lines like, “[Insert film title] is an ode to cinema,” when it comes to film criticism. Empire of Light may be one that desperately needs more of that sentiment. Sam Mendes‘s very personal film is scattershot and lacks focus. Sure, it’s beautiful to look at because of Mendes and Roger Deakins‘s breathtaking photography. And there is an exceptional performance from Olivia Colman. However, the sum is not greater than its delicate parts. A failure is a script that tries to reflect the turbulent times without a prominent villain character — besides Colin Firth consistently being caught with his pants down — to make that theme much more personal.
The main character is Hilary (Colman), a struggling manager at a beautiful local cinema. She is a bit of a self-contained mess, making self-destructive life choices. She can probably be described as the human version of controlled chaos. Hilary is being prescribed lithium, a drug that, for a half-century, was used to help treat manic-depressives, which is currently known as bipolar disorder. She is single and seems lonely, tired, and unhappy with what life offers presently. She is well-liked by her coworkers (that includes Toby Jones, very good here), who is protective of her. Hilary makes poor choices, including sleeping with her boss, Donald (Colin Firth), a man who seems to justify the affair because his wife has forgotten to make him a cup of tea. If you’re British, there is no greater insult to man than forgetting a lemon wedge.
Hilary’s worldview begins to look brighter. She meets Stephen (Michael Ward), a much younger employee working his way through school. Stephen is also struggling with life in this small seaside town in a time when race riots broke out frequently from 1981 to 1985. Where skinheads are more common on British streets than tall mohawks and Clash shirts that say Rock the Casbah, there is a shared trauma, both feeling like outcasts. This goes beyond physical attraction, which the film tries to depict and hang its hat on.
And this is where the film falters, which is a shame because this is the foundation Empire of Light is built on. The script, written by Mendes, asks us to believe something more is happening with Colman’s Hilary and Ward’s Stephen. At first, the love affair seems to be what it is on paper. This is a younger guy having an affair with a much older woman, and both are on different paths in life. However, after a couple of events, Mendes asks us to suspend our disbelief that there is a deeper substance to their romance.
Much of that drama is derived from Colman, who goes off her medication. Her performance, quite frankly, is unsettling and jaw-dropping. Why? Because of the way she accurately depicts someone experiencing a manic episode—the rapid cycling of highs and lows, but mainly a moving portrait of mixed behavior. In a scene with Stephen, Hilary displays eye-opening overactivity with a depressed mood that’s startling. Stephen witnesses the shocking scene firsthand and feels something for her, but more empathy than love, maybe even pity.
There are some exceptional scenes in Empire of Light. Toby Jones explains the craft and process of the projection of films to create magic for the viewer. Another where a racist protest overcomes the cinema, and a violent assault occurs. This seems to be a message cultivated by Mendes that suggests a community of cinephiles attend the cinema for God-like meaning. A church, if you will, when these facilities used to be palaces.
The film fails to significantly connect the “turbulence” with the marriage of cinematic bliss that is supposed to offer one salvation.
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