Empire of Light is safe Oscar bait that fails to capture the magic of the movies

2 out of 5 stars

Accelerating for some what was a foregone conclusion to others, the pandemic shed light on the shrinking influence of popular cinema on audiences. As studios had no choice but to release films via streaming, the power of cinema only dwindled. Cinemas struggled, some closed and despite greater access to titles, award shows like the Oscars failed to capture the fragmented attention of an audience. In this tense atmosphere, it should be no real surprise that one of the year’s most significant themes could be summed up neatly as “the magic of the movies,” explored in films like The Fabelmans, Nope, Babylon and, to a lesser extent, X, Pearl, Blonde and even Aftersun.

Sam Mendes, with Empire of Light, leans heavily into nostalgia in his love letter to the movies (or movie theatres). Set in the early 1980s on the South Coast of England, much of the film takes place in the latter years of a grand movie palace overlooking the sea. Hilary (Olivia Colman), dulled by medication and routine, works as a theatre manager who finds that her life explodes with new meaning following the arrival of a new, young black employee, Steven (Micheal Ward). 

There are many themes in Empire of Light: mental illness, race, Thatcherism, sexuality, and, yes, the magic of the movies. Teeming with ideas barely explored, the film limps along through half-baked centrist viewpoints without ever taking a firm stand. One even wonders why Mendes was keen on exploring so many questions when it’s clear he has so little to say. The film never escapes the middling perspective of a middle-aged Brit who has lived a charmed life away from the realities of the ground for over two decades. 

Rather than lending the film a chaotic interest, the film’s messiness creates a bloated languor that makes its two-hour running time feel much longer. For all the hype around Olivia Colman, she feels unmoored here — still stunning and magnetic, but the frayed edges of her mental collapse feel strangely calculated and unspecific. Rather than channel empathy or search for perspective related to her illness, the lingering scenes of her self-isolation and mania feel crass and exploitative. Though we may be experiencing the world through Hilary’s eyes, and shame weighs her down, the film fails to afford the character any dignity, reducing her to a sliver of tropes. 

The treatment of race feels similarly clumsy and unembodied, dealing heavily with clichés. Steven’s experiences and viewpoints remain close to the surface and lack depth as they fail to challenge the status quo of a white, liberal audience. Unfortunately, it feels like a transparent attempt to capture an audience of Oscar voters who might perceive the mere mention of Black people as a “very important film” despite the film’s shallow examination of that experience. 

With Roger Deakins as cinematographer, the film is undeniably beautiful. He manages to find poetry in the dusty brownness of post-1970s decor. He shoots nighttime scenes with such clarity of emotion that you’re transported to a magical, transformative nuit blanche of your memories. Yet, it’s also difficult not to be cynical about the fetishization of this type of cinematography. It indulges the “One Perfect Shot” approach to image-making that takes for granted audiences who mistake pretty for great. No shade to Deakins, one of our greatest working artists and technicians, but the power of the image does little to flatter, challenge or enhance Empire of Light‘s paltry script. 

Why do so many films about the love of movies fail so utterly to capture the radical emotions that truly great cinema inspires? Why are they so conservative and so dull? We’ve been blessed with some bangers of the genre this year — even the great films exploring the idea this year are nostalgic to a fault. The success of both Nope and Aftersun, which reimagine film history from fresh and critical perspectives, should be a wake-up call. The personal does not need to be sentimental or safe; it can still be formally and ideologically exciting. If films like Empire of Light are meant to inspire a movement to bring people back to the cinema, they still need to look forward and keep up with the times. ■

Empire of Light (directed by Sam Mendes)

Empire of Light opened in Montreal theatres on Thursday, Dec. 8, and is streaming now in Canada on Disney+.

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.