During the Great Depression in the United States, the cinema was a safe haven. People spent time at the movie theater to escape from the seemingly hopeless state of life at that time, so it makes sense that filmmaker Sam Mendes would use the concept of cinematic escape as a framework to approach a time of racially motivated violence in his new romantic drama Empire of Light. While the film is led by a sublime performance from master actor Olivia Colman, the highly skilled eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a touchingly effective score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it falls short where it needs to meet the moment the most. There are many things to praise, but they fail to pull together a full picture worth viewing twice because of a few key faults.
Empire of Light follows a middle-aged woman named Hillary (Colman) who fills her days with work as the shift head of a local seaside cinema in a quaint English town in the 1980s. When a young Black student (Micheal Ward) comes to work alongside her, she throws caution to the wind blowing on her dull life and begins an entanglement that will go on to affect her work, her emotional strength, and her worldview in ways she never expected.
Let’s start with the obvious but necessary: Colman is, as always, a complete force. No matter the role, Colman always nails whatever archetype she comes up against, and I’d even go as far as to say that she’s one of the most unexpectedly versatile performers we have right now. She’s done so much to prove that women of a certain age are valuable as performers, and her work’s vast impressivity shows the gems that lie in investing in stories they can lead. Her work as the central figure of this film is no exception and only furthers her command over a place in the generational canon of actors. She’s simply that good, brimming with emotional life in every frame, warm in some moments and stone-cold in others.
Ward, who plays Colman’s character’s love interest, is equally compelling but in different ways. He has a remarkable innocence about him despite a maturity beyond his years. As an actor, Ward is fun to watch and stands his own nicely opposite Colman considering he only has a few film and television roles under his belt thus far. Additionally, the film boasts a great ensemble cast of characters who work at the cinema. I’d be remiss not to mention them; Throughout the run, you feel like they are people you know and love. They remind you of your friends, the people you can’t stand at work, or the folks you’d like to get closer to. Mendes’ writing shines here, framing very realistic characters which, backed by very natural performances, shape an ecosystem-slash-cute little clique of regular people living small-town lives.
Reznor and Ross have been responsible for so many impeccable scores throughout their tenure as musicians. Still, the pair prove that they can find their footing within all types of genres and stories with the music for this romantic drama. I was immediately taken with the romanticism of the film’s score, which sweeps you up in this lush and lovely tone that suggests something really special is coming. It’s a different sound for them, but it feels altogether excellent in their hands, giving the audience all the right feelings in all the right moments—and in all that, the score still sounds fresh and new.
An undeniable fact about Empire of Light is that it is beautifully shot. The incredible production design, specifically surrounding the Empire Cinema building in all its glory, is stunning and the precise cinematography by Deakins, the king himself, puts all of that hard work under a beautiful microscope. He shows seaside landscapes and cinema architecture at their fullest potential and has a masterful command of finding the beauty in the human stare.
All of these aspects are necessary components for a good film, but the two issues I have with Empire of Light lie within both the racial conflict and the central romantic relationship in the film, and they’re significant enough to tarnish the staying power of Mendes’ story. The conflict is there, and it certainly works historically in the context of the 1980s-set film, but the picture is more concerned with being a romance that highlights the devastating rollercoaster that mental illness can be. It’s not a bad choice, but it makes me wish there was much more productive introspection here. Plus, there isn’t much of a case to be made for why Colman and Ward’s on-screen romance works. There isn’t much baseline for it other than the idea that Colgman’s character wants to prove to herself that her life isn’t stagnant. Their connection doesn’t make very much sense. Though not every relationship has to, it certainly makes it harder to suspend your disbelief and, in some moments, takes you out of the film entirely when you’re unable to make sense of it as a viewer.
These issues render the film a beautifully shot, sometimes inspiring misstep that, while showing us some appealing characters in a slice-of-life setting, doesn’t do much to examine or question racism honestly in any meaningful manner. Sure, it’s on display in full force, but Mendes’ writing seems to purposefully run just shy of getting to the heart of it—and there are plenty of places where more could be addressed in this picture. The subject of race feels very surface-level and performative in this film, as though in writing it, it would be a hall pass of sorts for the filmmaker to give his stance on things without getting too deep into the thick of what becomes politics when issues like this are on the forefront. It’s well-intentioned, but that doesn’t in any capacity take away from the fact that it doesn’t serve anyone of marginalized identities to platform stories that purposefully take the glossy road and glide right over the harsh realities of hate and hate crimes fueled by racism, something that continues to be a hauntingly regular occurrence in our day to day.
Loving cinema and its potential for good is an admirable message, especially when played to those who also love the art form. Many filmmakers have crafted successful pictures centered around that concept, even recently. But when you add marginalized people’s struggles to your plotline, the message of loving cinema becomes trite and is rightfully overshadowed. An anti-racist sentiment is only done a disservice by not being more deeply explored in service of a concept less tangible and more simplistic in ways, like the love of what movies can do. Had the film richly delved into both sides of things, it may have been able to achieve a balance where the idea of cinema’s power could’ve more fully and pointedly synched up with an indictment of hatred and the hate crimes perpetrated from a place of resentment. After all, cinema has always been, at its best, a refuge. The surface-level inquiries of Empire of Light, coupled with a mostly unbelievable romance at its center—and that’s despite a pair of assured and skilled performances—taint the overall experience and remind the audience why escaping from those issues into the warm light of the cinema doesn’t always satisfy us.
Empire of Light debuts in theaters on December 9th. Watch the film’s trailer here.