Empire of Light boasts gorgeous, near-flawless technical merits, but they can’t save a messy, unfocused script that bites off way more than it can chew.
Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have come together again after working on the masterpiece that is 1917. As soon as I saw that in the TIFF lineup, I knew I had to make Empire of Light one of my top priorities at the festival. But instead of the bigger spectacle films Mendes has been doing for the past decade, he’s now telling a much smaller story centered around Hilary (Olivia Colman), a theater worker in an old cinema in 1980s Southern England. She meets a man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) who’s hired to work with her, and as the two interact, they slowly work their way up to a romance. But their relationship is complicated by a variety of factors, such as their statuses as coworkers, a condition of Hilary’s that becomes more prominent, sexual arrangements she has with her manager (Colin Firth), Stephen’s hardships with living in 1980s England as a Black man, an old flame of his… there’s a lot going on in Empire of Light.
In fact, there’s far too much going on. Empire of Light contains some of the most gorgeous composition and expert direction I’ve ever seen given to a script this messy, unfocused, and occasionally incoherent. It’s honestly difficult to properly frame the events of this story for a discussion, because there’s almost no framework in the story itself to begin with. As I mentioned when describing the premise, Hilary is regularly invited into her boss’s office for sexual affairs, but it’s never made clear how exactly this arrangement came to be in the first place. It also has very little relevance to anything else that happens in the story, and the payoff occurs in the middle of the movie with nothing more coming of it. It’s instead replaced with another new major wrinkle involving a medical condition of Hilary’s that rears its head very abruptly. What felt like ten to fifteen minutes are devoted to everyone trying to deal with this sudden development and the subsequent fallout, but not only is it kept too vague for us to really feel what’s she’s even going through, but it’s eventually dropped just as quickly as it appeared. It never comes back into play, only serving as a detour for an already-aimless film.
Closer to the end of the movie, there’s a very intense and very dangerous attack on the theater by a mob of people. But while the motivations behind it were established earlier, and while it’s phenomenal on its own, it also comes across as pointless. I get the impression that Mendes wanted to weigh in on the prominent racial tensions that have exploded in the past couple years, through this scene and through occasional discussions of the British race riots of the time. But it all just comes across as another one of many narrative devices that also means very little. Nothing in Empire of Light can amount to anything because everything keeps cutting into everything else. I can see these threads all working cumulatively as a slice-of-life kind of tale, but rather than every aspect of that life being carefully interwoven and building off one another, they all just form an indiscernible mush where everything is diluted.
On top of that, Empire of Light also tries to throw in a love letter to the theatergoing experience. I’m all for that, but again, it doesn’t have room to properly unfold, making its emotional payoff – which is, again, really well-handled in isolation – ring hollow. And oh yeah, there’s a romance in there somewhere too. But even that’s not particularly strong. It’s cute and slightly touching for a bit, but it’s undercut by other developments before it can become anything of much meaning or depth. I don’t have a strong sense of why Hilary and Stephen are special to each other, or even really who Hilary is. I’d be fine with having to read more into the details for answers, but it doesn’t feel like there are many details to read into. It feels more like the substance is just not there, or at least not complete. That’s actually the best way to describe the script to Empire of Light: it feels incomplete. It feels like it was only on its first draft before shooting began. Obviously I’m not saying that’s what happened, only that it comes across that way. I can tell this screenplay means a lot to Mendes, who has sole writing credit here, but good intentions can’t save a bad end result.
Nor could the film’s technical merits save the script. Although they admittedly come very close. For all the detrimental flaws in the writing, I have zero complaints regarding pretty much anything else in Empire of Light. Roger Deakins, an all-time great master in my book, infuses every frame with a warm, golden aura. It feels like you’re in a dream, whether you’re seeing beautiful tinted windows behind the silhouettes of our characters, or building lights illuminating a hazy night in the city. The cinema featured in Empire of Light is often shot and lit to look like holy ground, the sacred space of magic and illumination that Mendes is clearly trying to build it up as, and you feel its weight and importance as a result.
This helps make the negative, even dirty behaviors that go on within those theater walls feel that much dirtier. This includes the attack mentioned earlier, which by itself is its own masterpiece of a horror film. The angles, more muted colors, the pacing, and especially the score give this scene the disturbing hellishness it needs. That score is from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who do fantastic work throughout the entire film. The music brings a gentle simplicity with a touch of more ominous undertones that feels right at home with the tone and events of the film. Finally, Michael Ward and especially Olivia Colman do everything in their power to elevate their characters. Colman is one of my favorite actors right now, and almost every bit of my investment in her character comes from the pained nuance she brings to the role.
If anything, Empire of Light is a prime example of just how much a messy script can singlehandedly bring down a film. Even when you have some of the best actors, directors, cinematographers, and composers on board, all of whom bring their A-game, they all just barely fell short of salvaging Empire of Light into being good as a whole. This was a very disappointing experience, because I love everyone involved with this movie and I want to see them all put their talents into something that turns out incredible. But as it stands, we only got several major pieces of that, all pointed in five different directions that fail to come together. I can only recommend Empire of Light if a fantastic experience for the eyes and ears is enough for you to overlook a lesser story, and even then, that’s a bit of a gamble. I got enough gorgeous imagery and sounds for me to at least be glad I saw it once. But what almost always keeps someone coming back to a film – the meaning behind it all – is depressingly unrealized here.
Empire of Light premiered at TIFF on September 12, 2022. The film will be released theatrically in the US & Canada on December 9, and in the UK & Europe on January 9, 2023. Read our list of films to watch at TIFF 2022.