I fell in love with movies at five years old. I’ve given the last decade of my life to writing about and celebrating movies. And as someone who loves film with all their heart, I’ll be the first to admit cinema is the art of manipulation.
All filmmakers work on audiences’ feelings like puppet masters. But some of them know how to hide the strings. A skilled filmmaker gently guides your attention along an emotional journey. Others aren’t so subtle.
There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy movies. Some people can dismiss heavy-handed filmmaking. But that same approach ruins the experience for others. This brings me to Sam Mendes’ latest feature, Empire of Light, a sentimental drama that bludgeons you into a powerful moment of emotional catharsis.
Empire of Light takes place in the early ‘80s and centres on Hilary (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged woman drifting through life. Hilary resides in an English seaside town and works at a movie theatre. Despite working in an elegant cinema palace like the Empire, she doesn’t watch movies. Instead, she spends her days managing the theatre and her nights drinking alone.
When a new employee joins the Empire Cinema staff he shakes up Hilary’s world. The handsome, charismatic, and much younger Stephen (Micheal Ward) takes a liking to Hilary. And as the two slowly bond, she wakes up to the harsh realities facing young black men like Stephen. Hilary and Stephen’s friendship provides them a safe refuge from the cruel outside world. But as their relationship blossoms, they’re forced to realize their lives are on different paths.
Countless films have bumbled their way towards a happy ending. But the way Empire of Light’s story wraps up is egregious. Mainly due to the script’s shallow examination of the story’s deep themes. Simply put: the movie doesn’t earn its feel-good ending. And placing an unearned happy ending on a film dealing with racism and mental illness comes off as dismissive. It’s like a doctor slapping a band-aid on a bullet wound and telling the patient to go home happy.
It’s difficult to break down the movie’s issues without getting spoilery, so forgive me for being vague with my points.
Empire of Light comes across like three movies in one. It’s Cinema Paradiso mixed with Green Book, with a helping of Girl Interrupted. This well-intentioned homage to the power of cinema leaves cinema on the back burner to focus on a woman’s spiralling mental health and England’s Thatcher-era racial tensions.
Mendes closes the film with uplifting schmaltz to relieve viewers from its dark plotlines. That makes sense. Of course, Mendes wants to send the viewer home happy. But again, the uplifting ending doesn’t feel earned because this story about the healing power of cinema doesn’t spend enough time on the healing.
This film’s examination of black trauma and mental illness feels clumsy. Empire of Light is another entry in the long line of movies using black people as a tool to teach white people about racism. Stephen struggles so that Hilary may find her inner peace. Making matters worse, the film uses lazy (and extreme) clichés to dramatize Hilary’s mental health journey.
The story does an inadequate job of showing the two leads discovering resilience through their struggles. Spoiler – Hilary exits the story while taking time to heal. End of spoilers – The movie yada yadas past the complexities of navigating mental illness and racism. It also glosses over the growth, dignity and composure born out of the healing process, implying a quick fix does exist.
Empire of Light would be a hot mess in a less capable director’s hands. But Mendes is a pro working with top-tier talent across the board. Although his work here is an overall misfire, it still contains breathtaking moments.
Mendes once again teams with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins shoots the Empire Cinema with a holy reverence, capturing it in warm golden hues. Empire of Light contains some of the year’s most gorgeous shots. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s stirring score elevates the beautifully shot sequences to another level. And this all serves as a backdrop to the wonderful performances from the talented cast headlined by one of today’s greatest talents, Olivia Colman.
From top to bottom, Empire of Light’s cast deliver committed performances despite the film’s tone often feeling out of sync. As Hilary, Colman has the showiest role, running through the whole spectrum of emotions. She goes from shy church mouse to untamed jungle cat. But I’m most impressed with Micheal Ward. His sexy and charming turn as Stephen matches every bit of Colman’s world-class star power.
Empire of Light is an overstuffed and under-baked crowd-pleaser at war with itself. It could have been a stirring love letter to cinema, a damning statement about racism, or a compassionate examination of mental illness. But it can’t be all three. The movie’s light final moments are a disservice to its heavy themes. It doesn’t matter if a film’s heart is in the right place when it shows up dead on arrival.
Empire of Light screens as a part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.