REVIEW: Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light’ is a colossal mess of ideas

Director Sam Mendes has made films that offered audiences some magic at the movie theater. His film actually about a movie theater, though, leaves a lot to be desired.

His movie “Empire of Light” stars Olivia Colman as Hilary, a woman working at a historic theater in southern England. Hilary has worked there for some time and has made acquaintances with her fellow staff members, but usually spends her down time alone.

That is until the theater hires Stephen (Michael Ward), a young black man who is trying to go to college, but hasn’t been admitted yet, and in the meantime is working for some money. Hilary and Stephen began spending time together, and eventually form a relationship, but it becomes tested because of personal issues and racial tensions in the country.

This was clearly an earnest project for Mendes. It’s apparent from start to finish that the filmmaker had a lot of ideas and was passionate about everything that was put to screen. It’s just a shame that it never really comes together in a coherent fashion.

“Empire of Light” is a total mess, with the movie trying to juggle way to many plot threads and themes. The film tries to include the romance between Hilary and Stephen, the racial issues England was going through, riots taking place at the time, Hilary’s mental health issues, the magic of cinema and the personalities of the other theater staff members.

It’s fine for a film to have a lot going on, but there should at least be a clear-cut main focus. With “Empire of Light,” though, it felt as though the film couldn’t decide what direction it was going or what it really wanted to be about.

Courtesy Searchlight Pictures.

It doesn’t help that a lot of the issues brought up throughout the film seem to just go away as it goes on. There’s a section about Hilary having a mental illness, but that’s dropped.  Part of the movie goes into how the boss of the theater is misusing his power, but that’s dropped along the way, too.

There’s a segment about race riots in England, but that’s also dropped, and for an American who doesn’t know much about that period of U.K. history, it sort of came out of nowhere and had no follow-up when it was done.

It also doesn’t help that the main relationship in “Empire” doesn’t have that much of a spark. Relationships like these where there’s a difference in age and background can work well in romantic dramas, as seen in films such as 2013’s “Don Jon” and 2015’s “Carol.”

Yet the connection between Hilary and Stephen never really feels authentic. It’s perpetually awkward, and not in a charming or endearing way. It always feels like there’s a degree of separation there, with the two never really coming across like there’s a love there.

It’s an unfortunate waste of a Colman, who does all she can with the role. The Oscar winner does give a superb performance capturing the character’s highest and lowest moments, as well as everything in between, in excellent fashion.


Relative newcomer Michael Ward is good on screen, too, holding his own with Colman and capturing the character’s optimistic look on the future despite facing racism regularly. The character shows a lot of resiliency and is often quite caring, and Ward makes it all convincing.

The supporting cast is pretty good, too, Toby Jones for example giving a solid performance as the projectionist, where he speaks like a detailed craftsman when describing the movie machinery.

The film also benefited from having two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins in the mix. “Empire of Light” is a beautiful looking movie, and it captures the true majesty of the movie theater featured. It’s overall a very good looking movie.

That’s why it’s such a shame that “Empire” turned out as it did. The film boasts a superb cast and sensational camerawork, yet it is an immensely frustrating watch because the main relationship isn’t compelling and the story is completely cluttered. It has positives but the movie consistently works against itself. 2 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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