TIFF ’22: ‘Empire of Light’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

For movie lovers, a trip to the cinema means the world to them. It’s not only escaping into the picture on the screen, but it’s the entire experience itself. To some, the movie theatre is a second home, almost a haven for anyone to express themselves. Director Sam Mendes opens Empire of Light with a beautiful trip through the Empire movie theatre. He shows every single moving part in operating the theatre and it’s beautiful, thanks to his director of photography Roger Deakins. However, the beauty of cinema and what seemed to be an ode to the theatre experience faded into the background. It then becomes a story about human connection with the theatre being the backdrop. 

It is set in an English seaside town in the early 1980s. The sociopolitical climate in the 80s is sprinkled in from time to time, but the central focus of the story is Hillary’s (Olivia Colman) struggle with her mental health. The audience slowly gets to know Hillary and the many ways she has changed over the years. Her colleagues at the movie theatre know her story and see her pattern but the audience doesn’t. Her timid demeanour changes when Stephen (Micheal Ward) starts working at the theatre. She falls for him instantly because he is so kind to her and he is someone new. Someone who doesn’t know her past. Their relationship blooms because of his kindness and her yearning for someone to accept her.

However, what doesn’t quite work is the racial politics forced into the film because of the period. It almost felt unnecessary to incorporate that aspect into the film because it felt detached from the characters. The cinema is a safe haven for the characters and the audience. So when it is disrupted by protestors and white supremacists with Stephen present it feels intrusive. If that was the intention of Mendes then it did work at that moment but wasn’t effective overall. When racism is written through a white lens the Black experience isn’t authentically shown, but rather exploited to make the story more grounded in the period. 

Empire of Light feels a bit hollow because of the way the characters and their relationships were developed. It does show the importance of human connection and how a little bit of kindness can change anyone’s perspective on life. In a way, the cinematography by Roger Deakins feels wasted because there was no clear direction towards the cinematic experience. There are such beautiful moments in the film because of Deakins but it just doesn’t translate well. Ward and Colman have great chemistry and deliver great performances. Ward’s character Stephen is used to add drama to the story and cater to Colman’s character. And when he gets his ending, it seems like an afterthought. 

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