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'Empire of Light' Review: Olivia Colman shines in Sam Mendes' underwhelming ode to cinema

'Empire of Light' would have been better if it was a miniseries where every theme could have found space to get explored
UPDATED OCT 12, 2022
Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight Pictures)
Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight Pictures)

Sam Mendes is undoubtedly one of the finest filmmakers of this generation and his extraordinary career is proof of how he has managed to influence so many lives over the years. So, it doesn't come as a shock that his latest movie 'Empire of Light' comes with a lot of expectations and his amazing award run in 2020 made people really hyped for this one. Even though it's one of the most gorgeously shot movies ever, it's also Mendes' most confusing movie to date. 

The movie primarily focuses on the life of a woman named Hilary (Olivia Colman) who is working as the Duty Manager at Empire Cinema in Margate. She is lonely, but shares a weird relationship with her boss (Colin Firth) who often calls her into his office for a handjob. However, everything changes when a young man named Steven (Michael Ward) joins the theatre as a new employee and strikes up a friendship with her. Soon, they start spending time with each other and get caught in a whirlwind of emotions. 


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Olivia Colman as Hilary in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight Pictures)
Olivia Colman as Hilary in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight Pictures)

The reason we say that it's a confusing movie is because it starts as a cute love story and changes its gears by exploring the racism issues in 1980s Britain. A few moments later, we see Mendes tackling mental health problems and then, it's all about loving the cinema. It gets really hard to follow each one of them because as soon as you start to get interested in one theme, the movie changes its path and fails to rope you in.

Colman is a force to be reckoned with in 'Empire of Light'. She has the potential of turning anything into gold and she did that with her character Hilary, who is alone, miserable and looking for someone to understand her feelings. Whenever she arrives on the screen, something magical happens. It's sad that an actor like that had to deal with such a script that felt undercooked. Michael Ward as Steven is phenomenal as well and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Colman.

Toby Jones (Norman) and Michael Ward (Steven) in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight Pictures)
Toby Jones (Norman) and Michael Ward (Steven) in 'Empire of Light' (Searchlight Pictures)

However, it's Toby Jones who steals your heart away with his portrayal of projectionist Norman. The scene where he makes Steven understand about how things work inside the projector room is literally the best thing ever and you can sense the excitement in his voice even when we know that he's just acting. He seems to be absolutely loving the way that he gets to talk about movies in that scene.

Apart from the acting, the cinematography is beautiful. Sir Roger Deakins has once again shown us why he is a living legend. Every frame is so preciously shot that you are in awe of it. Even after having an amazing cast and gorgeous cinematography, 'Empire of Light' feels underwhelming and shallow. Despite having some interesting themes, the movie ends up being disappointing and, unfortunately, the script written by Mendes is actually the weakest link here. Yes, we didn't expect that we'd be writing that, but now that we have seen the movie, we know that Mendes could have done much, much better than this messy movie. 

'Empire of Light' feels good in patches and whenever the focus is on the cinema part, it excels. Meanwhile, the other themes fell flat.