Sam Mendes’ first solo screenplay, Empire of Light, stars Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, and Micheal Ward. Set somewhere in the 1980s in an English seaside town, two movie theater employees, Hilary (Colman) and Stephen (Ward) begin a romantic relationship despite their age difference. While they find out more about each other, we realize they were never meant to last - Stephen hoping for better than their small town and Hilary grappling with mental illness.
At first, I’m vexed with what Mendes is hoping to convey with Empire of Light. Is it a love letter to film and cinema? Is he saying love has no age barrier (Hilary and Stephen have a large age gap)? Is he revisiting the race riots in England in the early 80s through an interacial relationship?
From the trailer, I wanted it to be a love letter to cinema. Remembering a time when we weren’t making ‘another comic book movie’ or remaking a Disney movie to live-action. Instead, we watch the budding of an improbable romantic relationship, all the while experiencing the eventual downfall of Hilary with a mental breakdown peppered in. For the cherry on top, we view a contrived trauma porn scene as Stephen is beaten by skinheads. Had the story tackled one single topic, this review could be dramatically different. Instead, the story lacks a focal point and gets muddied jumping from one narrative to another.
Despite the screenplay, the cinematography and performances are brilliant. The grandiose-ness of the theater, the Empire, reminds me of when people dressed up to see films, the likeness of the Orpheum Theater or Gammage Auditorium. The mundane task of opening a theater is done with such grace as you watch Hilary go about her daily duties akin to that of a dancer. Olivia Coleman and Micheal Ward are incredible together, having intimate and realistic conversations in which you forget you're watching a movie. There’s a beautiful scene with the Empire’s projectionist, played by Toby Jones, as he intricately weaves the film into the bulky, clunky projector machine of that time era. At one point, Coleman is alone in the theater late at night, watching a film from the best seat in the house. Her laughter and tears reminded me of the emotions I felt watching some of the dearest movies of my life. That’s what a film should do. Unfortunately, Empire of Light does not.
Score: 2 shots