movie review

Empire of Light Is Somber, Static, and Shallow

Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.
Olivia Colman in Empire of Light. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

A grim yellow pall hangs over the drab, empty spaces of Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light. Its source is, at least part of the time, the giant lit letters of the movie theater where much of the picture takes place. Perhaps they were there once to evoke grandeur and brightness; the Empire theater, we learn, was once a huge, elegant, multiscreen palace. Now, as filmed by Mendes and the great Roger Deakins, the mood is all stasis, sadness, sickly solitude. An obvious metaphor, yes, but perhaps also an appropriate visual signifier for this story about loneliness, mental illness, and racism set in a coastal town in southeast England circa 1981. And it’s just one of the many ways that all life appears to have been drained out of this movie.

Mendes is a filmmaker who likes to come up with visual correlatives to convey his heady themes, but there can, at times, be a dutiful quality to these conceits. The two figures at the center of Empire of Light — Hilary (Olivia Colman), the longtime duty manager of the Empire, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black employee to whom she takes a fancy — seem more like ideas for characters than actual people. The middle-aged Hilary lives by herself and spends much of her off time at the Empire. Occasionally, she’s called in by the theater’s married manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), to have a wan little tryst in his office. We learn from an early doctor visit that Hilary has been taking lithium. “Marvelous stuff,” the physician opines, but Hilary wants to stop taking it.

Hilary is fascinated by Stephen almost as soon as he arrives. He’s young, handsome, and from another world — a rudeboy with a stingy brim hat and three-button Tonic suit, fond of reggae and punk, a child of Caribbean immigrants who doesn’t have much to do now that many of his friends have “buggered off to college.” But we never really get into his life or hers. The script (by Mendes, his first solo writing credit) spends a lot of time with these two characters but doesn’t actually give them that much to do. Their relationship doesn’t feel particularly liberating or lively or even needful. It just kind of happens, presumably because the movie needs a plot; in its own way, their dalliance is as drab and sad as Hilary’s sour little encounters with the perpetually frowning Mr. Ellis. The director was reportedly inspired by his own mother’s struggles with mental illness in writing this film. That speaks to his sincerity, but maybe he’s too close to the material this time around. I’d argue that his beautiful 2008 adaptation of Revolutionary Road is a more incisive and tender look at a character’s fraying psyche.

It’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with Empire of Light; it’s just that there isn’t anything particularly right with it. Perhaps Mendes simply wants to place us in this world and let the oppressive atmosphere take over, à la something by Tsai Ming-liang. (Think Stray Dogs.) But I’m not sure he has the attention to texture or detail to pull that off — and, besides, his setting isn’t nearly immersive or captivating enough. His actors are solid: Colman’s achievements could probably fill a book by this point, and Ward has proven his chops in everything from Blue Story to Lovers Rock. But they can do only so much with such underwritten characters.

And so the film goes through the motions with Hilary and Stephen. We know the relationship won’t last. We know her mental situation will fray. We know the racism of early-1980s Britain will rear its ugly head in multiple ways, both violent and psychological. Aside from one rather terrifying scene when a skinhead protest thunders outside the doors of the theater and racist hooligans burst their way inside, none of the story’s inevitable turns happen in an interesting or emotionally engaging way. For all the energy expended on the look of this film, there’s nothing much onscreen. By the time Empire of Light was all over, I didn’t feel as if I knew anything about these two characters at all.

More Movie Reviews

See All
Empire of Light Is Somber, Static, and Shallow