Friday Film – LFF 2022: Empire of Light

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast : Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones

Empire of Light gets only two stars out of five from me.  And even these are for:

  • Olivia Colman who is always a forceful and watchable presence on screen.
  • Roger Deacon’s cinematography which is always spectacular and a delight to the eye.
  • That the film reminds us that, in 1981, a box of Maltesers at the cinema cost only 20p.

Beyond that, I’ve seen more convincing toupees on the heads of game show hosts than anything this well meaning but ultimately hollow film has to offer. 

After the emotionally intense and visually outstanding 1917, this lightweight film is a surprise from a director of the calibre of Sam Mendes. It’s supposedly a personal film from him with autobiographical elements. So, it’s unfortunate it feels so impersonal and unconvincing.

Unconvincing is the word that kept cropping up for me while watching it. 

The film is set in a cinema, in a coastal town in Sussex and focuses on the workplace lives of its staff.

I was unconvinced by the central romance between Olivia Colman‘s character, Hilary Small,  a middle-aged front of house cinema manager, with mental health issues severe enough to have required hospitalisation for several weeks and Stephen (Michael Ward) a hip young black man into 2 tone music, on his way to university to study architecture. Stephen’s mother’s easy acceptance of this relationship, in painful circumstances, did not ring true. The depiction of the sanitised, violent racism faced by Stephen was, again, just unconvincing. The text book gang of snarling skinheads whose racial slurs against him were muffled into the ether so as not to upset 2022 sensibilities meant that the scenes didn’t have any of the intended impact. I wasn’t convinced by Colin Firth as the predatory manager of the cinema, with a cringeworthy line in sex talk. The dialogue generally was insipid and not of the 1980s period. It was very ‘safe space’ 2022 stuff. I was unconvinced by the idea of Hilary finding tearful solace in film, nothing in her character development, to that point, having given any indication of any level of interest or emotional connection to that medium. 
Empire of light is not a bad film. It’s the sort of harmless movie you come across and watch when you’re alone in a hotel on a work trip and maybe fall asleep in the middle of because it’s been an exhausting day.

Originally, it was billed as being about ‘the magic of cinema’. They might want to re-think the pitch. Sadly, for me, the film failed to provide anything magical.