Empire of Light
Written by Sam Mendes
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones and Colin Firth
A drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s.
Sam Mendes latest drama takes some interesting and unexpected narrative turns as it introduces an interesting and eclectic cast of characters at a location one normally doesn’t see on screen that often.
The film takes place at a movie theater in an English coastal town and the first thing you not about the film is how beautifully shot everything is. You are immersed in the setting and feel a part of both it and the time period. The movie centers around two characters, Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Michael Ward). Hilary runs the local theater for Donald (Firth) and has been having an affair with him. When Stephen gets hired, Hilary finds a connection with the young man that becomes both intimate and ultimately destructive.
Colman and Ward have great chemistry together in a May/December romance that is at times tender and others fraught as the pair deal with the reality of their situation while also hiding it from everyone around them. There are certain people that have their suspicions, but their concerns are not for Hilary, but Stephen based on a secret they are all collectively keeping.
The way situations unfold between the characters is interesting and engaging at times, but the film suffers from a lot of things that should be said between characters that don’t. You find yourself disengaging from the characters a lot as you admire the environment they are in and that takes away from the ability to feel for the characters, especially Hilary.
Colman gives an amazing performance filled with emotion, but I wanted to care more about her and I couldn’t. There are also elements in the plot that felt forced like the racial undertones that Stephen finds himself dealing with and a moment towards the final act of the film that felt tacked on in order to create drama versus an organic part of the narrative.
Empire of Light is a beautiful looking film filled with great actors giving great performances. Unfortunately, it suffers from a story that falls flat at times and characters who have potential that seemingly go nowhere.