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Empire of Light

Olivia Coleman is insuperable in Sam Mendes’ new film

Sam Mendes has always been fascinated with loneliness, though his films have tended to be focused on male protagonists, be it with Skyfall (2012), Road to Perdition (2002), or even his war epic 1917 (2019). He’s finally pivoted to a female protagonist and has had the luck of casting one of the best female performers working today: Olivia Coleman.

Empire of Light (2022) is a film about Hilary (Coleman) a solitary middle-aged woman who works at the Empire Cinema in a seaside English town in 1980. Her life is a monotone repetition, with the only point of human contact being the affair she undergoes with cinema manager Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). However, Hilary’s life is shaken up when the cinema hires a new employee, Stephen (Michael Ward).

This is Mendes’ follow-up film to 1917 and proves to be nearly the exact opposite thematically. Empire of Light is a quieter and smaller film, much more focused on character and social issues. Mendes brings together a team of some of the greatest professionals in today’s cinema. Roger Deakins returns as his director of photography, to bring an immersive and delicate look at Hilary’s life. There are certain parallelisms in his frames to Edward Hopper’s paintings, where we see a solitary figure amongst a vast emptiness of urban structures. Mendes also brings on Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as composers, and they deliver a beautiful score that doesn’t seek to steal protagonism from the story, and instead enhances the narrative ambience. The film is technically flawless, but sadly as the saying goes, “you can make a bad film out of a good script, but you can’t make a good film out of a bad script.”

Empire of Light is Mendes’ first solo screenplay credit (he co-wrote 1917), and it unfortunately shows a lack of narrative focus. Mendes crafts a rather beautiful crescendo as Hilary and Stephen blossom their unusual relationship. They both see themselves as outsiders, though society treats them differently for it. Hilary, as a middle-aged woman is invisible and ignored, while Stephen, who is black, always has everyone aware of his presence. However, the third act becomes a confusing clash of narrative arcs that are sloppily arranged. Hilary’s character arc culminates in a commentary on mental health, Stephen’s subsequently ends in a white-supremacist mob beating him up, and the love-letter to cinema that the film initially was set up as, is flimsily sprinkled on top. This lack of thematic focus has viewers leaving Empire of Light unsure of what Mendes wants to say. Because the British director chooses to include all his disparate narratives and thematic elements, he ends up watering them all down.

However, Empire of Light is lucky to count Olivia Coleman in its ranks. The British actress is able to glue together the messy culminations of the third act in a way that delivers a more gutting emotional response than the story demanded. Coleman is so commanding in her every scene, from the flicker of an eyelid to the repression of a smile, that she makes you forget the creaky cogs of the rest of the film. She’s so powerful as the lead character, that she overshadows the other extremely competent work by the rest of the cast, from Firth playing against the type as a slimy manager, to Ward, who more than holds his own against the likes of Coleman and brings a greater depth to the racial elements in the film than Mendes dared to explore in his script.

In the end, Empire of Light is a technically marvelous film, with brilliant music, direction, photography, and overall aesthetic. Coleman is so masterful in the lead, that she shines through the rather indecisive and muddled third act and brings the film’s finale down to a safe landing.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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