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  • Writer's pictureWill Scarbrough

Review: Empire of Light

Hilary is a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen is a new employee longing to escape the provincial town where he faces daily adversity. Together they find a sense of belonging and experience the healing power of music, cinema, and community.

Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Toby Jones & Colin Firth.

Empire of Light is a decently written but beautifully crafted film through Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and each tender performance that compliment the overall theme of the film. Cinema brings all kinds of people together, each sharing the same experience, living in a moment. This is a thematic goal set from the opening frame, till its last.

Sam Mendes is an unusual director, often shining when he’s not entirely involved with the writing process. However when it came to 1917, while the technical elements shone, the writing was just as superb. The difference here is how dialogue driven Empire of Light is, very much attempting to convey utter empathy through every line. The characters are developed quite well, but nothing too complex to keep us too attached or interested enough to full engage and understand every aspect of each character. I thought its decision to have a character with mental illness’ be romantically involved with a discriminated person to be a rather unusual choice. Especially because of the age difference, as I thought the film would have worked just as well, if not better if it followed a younger white woman & black man and the troubles they may face while sharing their appreciation for cinema. This still sticks to the overall theme of cinema bringing people with differences together, along with this creating greater opportunity to explore more complex themes without diving too deep into mental illness. The contrast personally didn’t work for me.

Despite the unusual writing choices, every character is engaging in their own regard & acted superbly by Olivia Colman & Michael Ward. Of course it does empathically deal with themes of racism & never dives too deep into it that it takes over the overarching story, until the 3rd act that almost explodes into a very powerful sequence if it wasn’t for Sam Mendes’ lacklustre direction that wasn’t as tightly put together as I would have preferred.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography & Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score carry a lot of the film along, helping with the pacing and tone. Due to both those elements, it felt as though it created beauty in moments that were absent of that. And even though Deakins shot each frame gorgeously, the visual language is often lost, never offering too much meaning behind many frames.

Despite all this, Empire of Light is a fantastically technically crafted Sam Mendes feature that unfortunately is let down by Sam himself. The performances are tender, yet emotional. And the score is heavenly. It’s far from being a poor watch, but far from being a brilliant one too.

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Dec 13, 2022

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