Review: “Empire of Light” is Watchably Uneven

Handsomely made, but suffering from an identity crisis, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. The result is a narratively-unfocused film, albeit an enjoyable one.

Olivia Colman stars as Hilary Small, a meek and unassuming worker at the Empire cinema on the English coast in the early 1980s. Her life is quiet and filled with routine. She is carrying on an affair with the cinema owner Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). New employee Stephen (Michael Ward) arrives and joins the ranks. Hilary quickly attaches herself to him, and they develop a romantic relationship.

As Hilary and Stephan grow closer, Hilary’s mental state starts to unravel. Simultaneously, England begins to go through a political and economic change, bringing unexpected consequences for all involved.

The real problem with the film is a lack of vision. There is no one thing the film wants to be, so it decides to change gears every 20-30 minutes. It starts as a story of a woman’s lonely life, then it turns into a generational-gap love story, or is it an interracial love story? Then the film turns into a mental health drama, then shifts to a love letter to film, but then shifts again into a comment on the state of 1981 England. All the while, it also functions as a hangout movie about a group of people who work at a theater. Some of these elements work better than others, while others come completely out of left field and clash with the film’s tone.

That’s not to say the film is uninteresting. When the whiplash of the story shifts wear off, the end result is still a film with highly watchable qualities. When the film zeroes in on the people at the theater and the power of film, it all comes together nicely.

It’s exceedingly simple to say “Olivia Colman is good as always,” but it is the new standard for a reason. Despite the shifting narratives and motivations, Colman is fully committed to whatever the film asks of her. She doesn’t shy away from her age, desires, shifting mental stability, or numbness. She leans in and fully engulfs the role. Ward is the much more unexpected surprise. Stephen is unassuming, likeable, realistic, and relatable. He does not live in a fantasy world that other characters hope to live in, but has to adjust to the world as it is. Ward paints Stephen with such lush colors without doing anything overly flashy. It’s a wonderfully naturalistic performance.

While the rest of the cast is largely sidelined, they all perform admirably. Firth nails the upscale smarminess the film is asking of him, while Toby Jones is a mysterious projectionist who pops in to deliver a monologue or sage advice. Tom Brooke is a welcome face as a kindly coworker, while Tanya Moodie is heartbreakingly gentle as Stephen’s worrying mother.

Mendes drenches the film in atmosphere and nostalgia. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins frames each shot with a shadowed reverence for film while maintaining a clear visual language. Despite a full career of exquisite shot making, Deakins delivers some of the best work of his career.

While handsomely made, Empire of Light proves too scattershot to transcend its generic plot. Though I’m sure the old-fashioned nostalgia will endear people to the film, it was far too uneven for me to connect with.

Empire of Light is playing in select theaters starting Friday, December 9th
Score: 3.0/5.0

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