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'Empire of Light' Film Review

'Empire of Light' aspires to be a film about the love of cinema, couched in a dysfunctional love story. However, the Empire Theatre is just a place where the characters’ drama is centered.
[L-R] Micheal Ward as Stephen and Olivia Colman as Hilary in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

[L-R] Micheal Ward as Stephen and Olivia Colman as Hilary in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Sam Mendes's Empire of Light opens in the empty Empire Theatre, flecks of natural light giving the impression that the hazy confines are haunted. Then manager Hilary, played by the simmering Olivia Colman, enters the spot, getting the rhythm of the routine of this sacred cinema space going. One of the archways has the Shakespeare quote, "Find where light in darkness lies." And, as we discover, Hilary is constantly fighting through the darkness. The problem is the film is just as splintered as Hilary’s outlook. Instead of embracing one central idea, the film tries to incorporate too many issues that need to be independently explored.

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The love story is forced and ludicrous. Handsome young Stephen, played by a quietly sensitive Michael Ward, finds his light in the darkness by initially developing a sexual relationship with the troubled Hilary. The platonic friendship they forge floats through the movie like a beam of sunlight and is much stronger and more believable than their carnal tête-à-têtes.

Another subplot is the racism Stephen faces as a Black man and immigrant in the U.K. The story is set in the early 1980s when skinheads were on the rise and prowl in England. Despite understanding the social climate, Stephen seems oblivious to putting himself in harm’s way as long as he can work with his Empire family and be with Hilary. The British Empire was a pseudo beacon of light to East Indians, West Indians, and Africans wishing to improve their economic conditions. Stephen and his mother symbolize the price paid for assimilating into a colonizer nation.

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Empire of Light aspires to be a film about the love of cinema, couched in a dysfunctional love story. However, the Empire Theatre is just a place where the characters’ drama is centered. There’s no paean to the art of cinema like in Cinema Paradiso (1988). In that movie, the love for cinema is intrinsically linked to the love for life. Empire of Light embraces the need for human connection, with the cinema just being an avenue of escape from the harsh realities of life. While there are some heartrending, unsettling moments in the film and Olivia Colman gives an outstanding performance, the sum of the film isn’t greater than its parts.

 Olivia Colman as Hilary in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

 Olivia Colman as Hilary in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

One of the best aspects of the film is the lush score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which crests in and out of scenes like an emotional wave. Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography highlights the fluctuating tones of the story and makes the English seaside town a marvel.

With a cast that also includes Colin Firth, Ron Cook, Toby Jones, and Tanya Moodie, Empire of Light will be released by Searchlight Pictures in theaters on December 9, 2022. 


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