From Academy Award®-winning director and writer Sam Mendes, Empire of Light is a moving drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times. Set in and around a faded old cinema in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, it follows Hilary (Olivia Colman), a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee who longs to escape this provincial town in which he faces daily adversity. Both Hilary and Stephen find a sense of belonging through their unlikely and tender relationship and come to experience the healing power of music, cinema, and community.
What We Thought:
Empire of Light looks absolutely beautiful because of the master Roger Deakins and its director Sam Mendes. It sounds amazing because of the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s extremely well acted by Olivia Colman, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Micheal Ward and the rest of the cast as well. So that means Empire of Light is one of my favorite films of the year right? It’s a no-brainer right?
Unfortunately no. Despite it being a near flawless film in most aspects of filmmaking, the story is a total train wreck. I am genuinely confused at what the point of it was and where it was going. If you watch the trailer below, it looks like a glowingly beautiful homage to film. Filmmakers love to make movies about movies, but this movie is 100% not like its trailer.
Did you watch that? The narration from Toby Jones and the scenes shown in it paint a story about movies. But make no mistake, despite the characters working at a cinema in early 1980s England, Empire of Light is about mental health and racism. You don’t get any of that from the trailer.
Colman plays a woman dealing with a mental health issue. She’s on medication and sees a doctor. A new employee (Ward) brings a new light (pun intended) to her life and she starts feeling good about things. As their friendship develops she sees how he’s treated during the time period. As problems between them arise, she starts to lose control of herself again.
If it was just about a woman losing control, I’d be ok with it, but it then gets heavy handed about racism and beats you over the head with hatred. It’s almost like separate stories with one act being about one thing and the next act being about another. Sam Mendes is an award winning filmmaker, I’m shocked at how unconnected different parts of the story feel and how it all comes out of nowhere especially given the trailer.
Empire of Light is too good in parts to be bad overall. It’s not bad per se, it’s just not what I expected. It will be nominated for multiple awards most likely for Colman, Deakins, Mendes and maybe Best Picture. It shouldn’t be nominated for Best Picture, but Hollywood loves movies about movies. If the story wasn’t as messy I could probably look beyond that because of how amazing everything else is. Colman delivers a fantastic monologue in one powerful scene. Deakins gives us stunning shot after stunning shot set to music from Reznor/Ross. If Toby Jones had more scenes I could see a Supporting nomination for him, but I don’t think he has enough screen time. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ward landed one though. From every technical aspect the movie is dynamite, but its story will be one that baffles me for a while. Even talking with others, we all agree it’s not the movie you’re seeing advertised.