Review by Camden Ferrell
Sam Mendes has had an interesting career, consisting most recently of two James Bond movies and the breathtaking war movie 1917. His first movie in three years, Empire of Light, is far more quiet and meditative than his last few movies, but that doesn’t make it any less affecting. Even though it has some glaring flaws, one can’t deny the emotion and great performances that are on display from the captivating set of actors on screen.
It is the early 1980’s in a small English coastal town, and there is a theater that serves as an escape for its clientele. At this theater works a unique group of employees, each with their own personalities. This movie mostly follows the daily happenings of Hilary, an older woman with a complicated past and complicated relationships as she grows closer with Stephen, the young man who has just started working at the theater.
Mendes’ script is quiet yet ambitious at times, and it makes for an interesting combination even if it doesn’t always work. He has a unique way of brining the audience into this setting with great and natural interactions that highlight the power of human connection in times of relative turmoil. However, by its end, it becomes obvious that the movie bites off more than it can chew which leads to some disjointed and odd moments in the film’s writing.
The acting will likely be the most talked about part of this movie and for good reason. This is undoubtedly another showcase of the massively talented Olivia Colman, and she does not disappoint. She exhibits some great range throughout the movie, and she even manages to shine when the rest of the film fails to do so. Another great surprise from the cast is Michael Ward who gets plenty of chances to shine and holds up his own with a master like Colman.
The movie tries to market itself off as an ode to cinema, and while there are elements of that, it doesn’t really deliver on that front. It’s better viewed as a portrait of human interaction with dashes of social commentary. As mentioned before, it doesn’t always juggle these many ambitions well, and a lot of the elements of race aren’t handled particularly well. It does a lot without saying much substantial, and it comes off as slightly hollow. Regardless, one can’t deny the presence of genuine emotion in its writing, execution, and truly affecting performances.
Empire of Light may have limited mileage for some audiences, but it’s a heartfelt movie that explores unique human relationships among a backdrop of social issues of the time. It’s a great showcase for Colman and Ward, and it’s the most meditative we have ever seen Sam Mendes as a director.
Empire of Light is in theaters December 9.