Written & Directed by: #SamMendes
As part of BFI London Film Festival 2022
Stunning imagery of a time gone by. Blurry memories flickering before our eyes; light creating the illusion of life. A scrapbook being gently flipped through. The history and tapestry of a director trying to connect with his audience. Yes, this is Sam Mendes’ Belfast.
Empire of Light was introduced by its director as a film not only about movies and how they can be a form of comfort for all, but also about race, mental illness and community. Across its 2 hour runtime—though feeling much, much longer than that—it manages to capture a feeling of lonely existence. Olivia Colman’s Hilary struggles with mental illness and works as a duty manager for Empire, a cinema on the coast of Margate. She doesn’t have any friends outside of those from work, that is until Micheal Ward’s Stephen is employed at her cinema. Shot on location, Deakins’ stunning cinematography grasps you and entices the eyes, as to be expected from one of the greatest cinematographers working today. The beautiful imagery is supported by a warm, melodic, piano-driven score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; which, especially during the opening montage, proves to be a truly wonderful visual and musical pairing.
Featuring a fairly large cast of well-known “British treasures,” as stated by Mendes, only a select few are really focused on during the film. Colman leads with her usual efforts, but the real star here is Ward. His performance is multi-layered, aptly fine-tuned and his charisma is ever flowing. He is, without a doubt, a rising star to be made aware of, and this film will have audiences waiting for what he does next. If you take away these three aforementioned positives, there really isn’t anything left in Empire of Light to love.
Much like Belfast from last year, Empire of Light struggles to say what it actually wants to say. You can see fragments, but the potential is never met with good results. This is a painfully stretched out “love letter” to Mendes’ childhood, yet never feels like a childhood that he could have had. I don’t see him anywhere in this. It’s a shame that a film this personal to Mendes, where he’s trying to reach out and connect to us, could feel so distant and empty. The ideas are there, they just don’t work. Almost everything in this film feels too crisp and clean; even when bad things are happening to the characters, it’s placed there to make the viewer feel something, but it’s forced. One scene during the final act did make me angry, but even then, it felt like I was being manipulated and tricked into thinking this film is much smarter, with more to say, than it actually is and does. Unfortunately, apart from its splendid visual and musical presentation, and a star-turning performance from Micheal Ward, Empire of Light is utterly bland and one of this year’s most disappointing films.
BFI London Film Festival 2022 runs from October 5th - 16th, for more info visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff