Review: Empire of Light
Jessica Cadogan finds that despite being an aesthetic treat, Empire of Light ultimately lacks substance and tries to tackling too many hard-hitting issues.
Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light seemed as though it would be an Oscar front-runner, delivering a shining entourage of performances and wonderfully nostalgic cinematography, but it ultimately fails to bring all its ideas together – resulting in a visually pleasing, but somewhat shallow, comment on society and cinema.
The film follows the relationship between Hilary (Olivia Coleman), a quiet and lonely woman, and the young Stephen (Michael Ward) set to the backdrop of 1980’s Margate in an old-fashioned cinema as Stephen begins working at the Empire alongside Hilary. Some of the issues addressed include racism, feminism, mental health, abuse, age gaps in relationships, and the wonder of cinema – all within 2 hours. This is an ambitious move that doesn’t entirely pay off as each of these issues are only discussed on a very surface level, failing to give them the time they deserve. Despite this, the exploration of Hilary’s mental health issues seems to be the central focus as they are addressed more openly and hold more screen time than others.
Of course Olivia Coleman delivers a spellbinding performance; one that doesn’t infantilise or make fun of Hilary’s mental health. Michael Ward stands out as Stephen is introduced to the story, bringing a playfulness initially but delivering a complex and sincere performance as the pair hit a block in their relationship. Toby Jones and Tom Brooke are wonderful additions, bringing a warmth whenever on screen especially as they become a greater part of the story in the third act. Jones’ monologue in the projection booth about the “illusion of life” is simply wonderful, but I wanted more.
Whilst we know life is as complex as this with so many different issues to handle every day, the film succeeds on breadth but fails on depth.
This becomes one of the film’s key issues as it feels undecided on exactly what kind of film it wanted to be. It could have been an endearing romance, but it fails to show the depths of what exactly Hilary and Stephen could feel for each other, other than sex. It could have been a tough social commentary, but it fails to go any deeper than showing Stephen be beaten up by a group of skinheads. Perhaps a sonnet to cinema, but Toby Jones plays such a limited part – so it swings somewhere in the middle of lacking subtlety and being incredibly impersonal. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of great emotional depth – the sight of Hilary crawling onto the floor sobbing will stay with me for a while – but nothing lingers long enough to sustain a particular feeling, thus making the tone confusing and uneven. Whilst we know life is as complex as this with so many different issues to handle every day, the film succeeds on breadth but fails on depth.
There can be no argument against the film looking beautiful, with incredible sets and world-renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins delivering stunning shot composition. Unfortunately the tonal inconsistencies and lack of cohesion take away from the façade of activist media and leave the audience with a pretty film and a happy ending, ultimately lacking substance.