Movie Review – Empire of Light (2022)

The opening to Empire of Light is magical. A grand theater seemingly sleeps as we’re shown an empty box office, an unpopulated lobby, and a darkened theater. It’s not until the manager Hillary (Olivia Coleman) comes in and turns on the lights that the Empire movie theater stirs from its slumber. There’s a stillness and tenderness to how she performs mundane tasks such as putting her boss’ shoes in front of a space heater that adds to the intimacy of this story as she prepares the theater for its staff and patrons.

The sequence effortlessly cares and wants you to care about the movies. Sadly, the rest of the movie doesn’t compare. Despite predominately taking place in a movie theater, the movies are secondary. Yet Toby Jones’ as the projectionist Norman has lines that desperately want you to believe otherwise.

We’re shown the lonely life Hillary leads eating meals by herself and not having a partner at dance class. She’s also having an affair with her married boss played by Colin Firth. On top of that, she’s taking pills for bipolar disorder; they stabilize her moods but she describes them as making her numb. It’s not until Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired that Hillary begins to take an interest in life again. What starts as an employer/employee relationship turns into an unlikely friendship and buds into a romantic one. Hillary is happy for once and decides to stop taking her medication. Now Hillary and Stephen’s relationship is tested as racial tensions begin to breakdown and Hillary starts to spiral.

Colin Firth and Olivia Colman in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Director and writer Sam Mendes makes a movie that tries to comment on the magic of the cinema, racism, an intergenerational relationship, and mental health with varying levels of success. The movie authentically addresses the aforementioned elements best when Hillary and Stephen interact with their co-workers or the theater itself. It’s not until the movie begins to widen its scope that it loses its focus and closeness to its characters. The broad stroke approach to these topics is a disservice and comes off preachy.

Coleman and Ward have great chemistry, and it’s such a shame that the movie is so lifeless. Once Hillary stops taking her medication, a growing sense of dread distracts from their relationship. I found myself often wondering when Hillary would go off on Stephen. That said Coleman does a great job conveying the various changes in her moods from one scene to the next.

Jones and Firth aren’t in this movie enough to be properly utilized, but Jones has some great lines (albeit inorganic) about the experience of going to the theater. Sadly, they come at such odd times that it feels as if the director wants to remind the audience and the movie itself that this story is about the love of movies. Just as disingenuous is Hillary’s discovery and awe of the movies. Hillary works at the theater but has never seen any of the movies the Empire screens – or possibly has never seen a movie ever. She sits in theater alone, after hours. The scene is about as sincere as Nicole Kidman’s monologue about how the AMC movie theater chain is magical.

Empire of Light had the potential to be a prestigious drama; unfortunately, all that energy quickly fizzles out.

Rating: 1.5/5.

“Empire of Light” is available now on Digital, Blu-ray and DVD.

The Big Comic Page was provided a copy of “Empire of Light” for this review.

The bonus features include:

Creating Empire of Light – Go behind the scenes of this personal film with writer-director Sam Mendes, and uncover the story’s origins and the director’s love of cinema. See how the perfect location was found to rebuild a classic movie theater that had the cast in awe.

The writer of this piece is: Laurence Almalvez
Laurence tweets from @IL1511

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