"Nothing happens without light."
The year is 1981, and we are transported to England to the run-down movie theater palace known as the Empire Cinema. Amidst the political and social turmoils of the day, the Empire Cinema stands as a beacon of hope despite its storied history. Much like post-COVID theaters today, the Empire Cinema has passed its prime but still has a few more stories to tell its audience.
Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the unstable manager of the Empire Cinema. Her duties range from training new employees, cleaning movie theaters after a screening, and giving handjobs to her loathsome boss Donald (Colin Firth). Donald doesn't appreciate Hilary's work, despite their extramarital activities and her longstanding history with the theater itself. Amongst the ensemble staff that includes projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and newcomer Stephen (Michael Ward), Hilary's presence at the theater tends to be awkward.
But overall, "Empire of Light" is an awkward film at its core.
For a film that tries to speak to the ever-changing landscape that cinemas across the globe have gone through over the decades, "Empire of Light" has very little to do with the movie theater business. Instead, the English coastal town that the theater resides in is the backdrop of racial hatred and interwoven stories of love and loss. Hilary and Stephen find a connection in one another that neither has experienced before. However, their interracial love is frowned upon in a country still dealing with the effects of colonialism and newfound conservatism. It's a film with too many themes to count, with no clear direction for where it is going or what it is trying to say.
Writer and director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") attempts to transport his audience to a time of great division, where communities fight each other over mundane issues of the day. But "Empire of Light" doesn't do that plot justice, as it focuses far more on Hilary's unhinged behavior and her trajectory as a person with great empathy for others. She's a complex character and one that Stephen wants to help, but their love connection dwindles over time.
At its heart, "Empire of Light" doesn't know what it wants to be, often relying on its audience to transport themselves into an empty movie theater, signifying nothing. The end credits roll, and you are left confused about this movie's message, whether it's Hilary's demented ways or Donald's disgusting attitude towards women and himself. Michael Ward comes away from this film unscathed, as he tries his best to identify with his character and make himself useful when the story goes nowhere. Not even the impressive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, nor the stunning cinematography from industry veteran Roger Deakins can help the script’s structural elements.
For a piece of art that strives to introduce its viewers to the hopefulness that movies can bring, its careless approach to race relations and supposed schizophrenia makes it impossible to appreciate.
Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟