‘Empire of Light’ Never Burns Bright Enough

Empire of Light should burn as brightly as its title implies. It has Sam Mendes as a writer and director, Olivia Colman as a leading lady, and it has a setting that should be a gateway to many a moviegoer’s heart: a once great but now decaying movie palace in a small town on the English coast. It’s even set in 1981 for the benefit of nostalgia.

Alas, Empire errs far too much into the technical to truly shine. It gives us a romance between Colman and the much younger Stephen (Micheal Ward), the only Black member of the main ensemble, without truly examining their relationship. It attempts to shatter its own sense of nostalgia by including the era’s vicious skinheads without interrogating the white gaze.

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Toby Jones and Olivia Colman in EMIRE OF LIGHT. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Most fundamentally, it takes place in a movie theater and barely references the movies themselves, saving its lovingly reverential closeups for reels and projectors that have long since gone digital. The reverence is understandable, less so is why it takes about 45 minutes to kick in, with the movies themselves taking even longer to finally make an appearance on the theater screen.

Heroic Touches

At least we have Colman, who gives a reliably great read as Hilary, a lonely woman who works at the Empire Cinema and is struggling with her mental health. Her lithium grants her stability, but also numbness, and she’s mostly going through the motions until she and Stephen embark on a tender affair.

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Olivia Colman in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Good for her, and Mendes for giving her heroic moments even after she decides her new relationship will provide her enough stability to do without lithium, resulting in a public spectacle that nevertheless includes some comeuppance for the most deserving. But Empire has a major blind spot, and it’s enough to bring the movie down, if only to a mediocre level rather than the bottom rung.

Empire of Light wants to believe that some things are good by definition. It wants to believe its good intentions are enough to make Hilary and Stephen’s relationship admirable, even if we know it can’t last, and that depicting the era’s racism is enough to give Stephen depth. Yet it refuses to equally prioritize their concerns, with Hilary’s drama with a mean boss trumping the racist harassment Stephen endures the same day.

Outside the Bounds

From almost the minute he starts, Stephen’s role is to get Hilary outside of her comfort zone, asking to see the hidden elegance hidden away in the unused portion of the theater, and later, sexual pleasure that is clearly mutual and somewhat new to Hilary. Their friendship is prioritized far more than their affair, but how could it be anything but cringy when it includes a literal bird with a broken wing they both care for.

Empire also insists on seeing the movie theater as a place of kindness, and most importantly, a shelter and escape from the outside world. Hilary’s coworkers are quietly supportive of her, and show an admirable form of discretion in pretending not to know about her affair with their married, self-centered boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth in full dirtbag mode), who is nevertheless unable to taint the spirit of cinema itself even as he’s taking full advantage of Hilary’s loneliness and pain.

Empire follows their example by refusing to acknowledge that movies also have a history of dehumanization, and even Colman’s sadly expressive eyes can only do so much. Its heart may be in the right place, but without a sense of focus, it’s not enough to lift it out of mediocrity.

Rating: 5/10 SPECS

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.

She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.