Despite Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and another phenomenal performance by Olivia Colman (who can literally do no wrong), EMPIRE OF LIGHT cannot overcome writer/director Sam Mendes’ muddling, disjointed screenplay. It almost seems like the script was manufactured by one of those computer algorithms that takes elements of films that one would think to be Academy Award voter bait and spits out a bunch of random plots that never turn into a cogent film. I was hoping this would be a love letter to the movies, because I am an admitted sucker for that, but instead it is an uneven story about racism in 1980s Britain, a woman’s battle with mental health, a romance, and some nods to cinema weaved in.
EMPIRE OF LIGHT is Mendes’ most personal movie yet, with many of the elements taken from memories of his childhood. The film centers around a movie theater and the people that work inside of it in the 1980s beach community of Margate, England. Hilary (Colman) is the head usher, who has returned from a stint in a mental health facility following issues with possible bipolar disorder; it doesn’t help that she is stuck in a toxic routine of engaging in a one-sided romantic relationship with her married boss (Colin Firth). When Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired onto the team as he awaits admittance to university, he makes fast friends with Hilary and the two develop a close friendship that blossoms into a relationship. But issues with Hilary’s mental health coupled with Michael facing dangerous racism in the community threaten the couple’s relationship. Is this something they can overcome or are Hilary and Stephen on two different paths?
It’s lucky Mendes was able to cast the extraordinary Olivia Colman, who carries the film on her back and is one of its few saving graces. Even during her character’s purposefully cringey moments, you can’t help but root for Colman, which is less a result of the script and more a remnant of her incredible charisma. Michael Ward also was phenomenal, doing the most he could with the script. He and Colman had natural chemistry, and their relationship was easily my favorite part of the film. Colin Firth, on the other hand, is criminally underused in a character that is different than what we are used to seeing, but is still vastly underdeveloped.
I wish I liked EMPIRE OF LIGHT more, especially because one of my favorite actors is at its helm, but unfortunately it is disappointing and never really seems to know where it should go next, choosing the everything but the kitchen sink method to see what plot line sticks. What was originally billed as an Oscar contender is far from it, with a runtime that felt more like three hours than two and plots that seem too familiar. But hey, at least Deakins’ cinematography was gorgeous. That and watching another tour de force performance from Colman almost made it worth my time… almost.
My Review: C–