Underwhelming. Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light tries to be too many things, and winds up being none of them sufficiently enough. Furthermore, it’s a story out of time that would have played better had it come out 30-40 years ago. Moreover, it’s poorly paced, and Olivia Coleman’s Oscar-reaching performance is simply not enough to save this film that so desperately desires your affection. Is it a story about the challenges of a mixed race couple in the 1980s? Is it a story about the love and healing nature of cinema? Is it a story commenting on and challenging ageism in romance? Or, is it a story about trauma and mental illness? It’s all of those subjects–and–none of those. None of them effectively enough, anyway.
A romance develops in a beautiful old cinema on the south coast of England in the 1980s.
In an age in which mixed-race couples are increasingly common, movies about the healing power of cinema have been done–and much better (ie Cinema Paradiso), and films about mental illness are common, the story that needed to be the central focus was the one on ageism in dating. And yet, that subplot takes the furthest backseat to the others. Empire of Light never lands on any one outside/action story paired with an inside/emotional story. Neither does Coleman’s character effectively go though a growth arc–she is largely the same at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning–save the healing power of cinema (which isn’t her chief struggle).
This film stands as another example of a director with an idea(s) that should have worked with a screenwriter, because any screenwriter with his/her weight in salt would’ve cautioned Mendes against the plethora of subplots and inner-needs. A closer look at this film suggests that Mendes desired to create this generation’s Cinema Paradiso, but the movie simply doesn’t deliver on that theme or subplot. Like with all the other themes and motifs, the narrative feels desperately forced. I’ll leave you with this: where the film does excel.
Empire of Light ‘shines’ best through the brilliant eye of director of photography Roger Deakins. It’s because of his incredible talent that the film looks as gorgeous as it does. Furthermore, the setting and production design shine brilliantly. I wish that the outside/action story included the renovation of the older auditoriums and ballroom. Would’ve made for a fantastic manifestation of one of the inside/emotional stories.
Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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