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EMPIRE OF LIGHT (2022)  l  Searchlight Studios  |  December 2022

Starring:  Olivia Colman, Monica Dolan, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones and Colin Firth.

Director: Sam Mendes

Set in an English seaside town in the early 1980s, EMPIRE OF LIGHT is a powerful and poignant story about human connection and the magic of cinema from Academy Award® winning director Sam Mendes.

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TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus

Empire of Light is the latest film from master director Sam Mendes, acting as an ode to cinema with stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins and a lovely performance from Olivia Colman, even if the film’s story ends up being a mess that is challenging to watch. 

Mendes directed two of the greatest films of the 2010s: Skyfall and 1917. So, the second his next project was announced as a love letter to the lost nature of the cinema house, I was immediately excited to see what he had cooked up, because his career up to this film suggested that he could do no wrong. However, his latest film features an underdeveloped story that fails to follow through on the many subplots it introduces over the course of the film, resulting in a tiring watch from start to finish. 

The film tells the story of Hillary, a middle-aged woman working at one of the few remaining cinema houses in a small English seaside town in the 1980s, who meets and begins a romantic relationship with Stephen, the young man who has recently started working at the cinema house. Their romance creates the backbone of the film’s story, while various subplots are introduced such as the cinema house featuring a world premiere of a new major motion picture, political unrest and racial discrimination prevalent in England in the 1980s. 

Much like Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which also played the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Empire of Light is a personal story for Mendes. The character of Hillary is loosely based on Mendes’s own mother and her struggles with mental health while being a single mother, and Stephen shares Mendes’s love of art and cinema, which was an escape for Mendes during his childhood. However, this personal connection is muddled in an overstuffed screenplay and is of little effect on the viewer. Each new subplot is introduced, but the film does not have the time to fully develop the idea or to provide closure to them before it quickly moves onto the next subplot being introduced. This is the first screenplay that Mendes has written on his own, and while there is a good story somewhere in this film, it just goes to show that Mendes is a far better director and should leave the writing to writers for his next film, or co-write the film like he did with 1917 so a writer can fine tune the screenplay to ensure a coherent and complete story is told. 

Luckily, there is a lot to admire about this film that makes up for the lacking screenplay. Olivia Colman is wonderful as Hillary, showing that there is no role where she will not steal the hearts and attention of any audience. Her portrayal of Hillary is warm and compassionate, creating true heartbreak for her character during the scenes where she is off her medication and struggling with her mental illness. Throughout her performance, Colman humanizes Hillary, creating a woman that every audience member can relate to one way or another, once again confirming her as one of the most talented actresses in the business. While the screenplay leaves the heavy lifting for Colman to do in her performance, I would not be surprised at all if Colman sneaks into the Best Actress race this awards season, because if there is anything she has proven over the past few years, she is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped at awards shows.

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The other main cast members, Michael Ward, Toby Jones, Tanya Moodie and Crystal Clarke, are all good, elevating their characters beyond the simplistic screenplay and infusing them with emotion, even if they are not given a large enough role in the story to leave an impact on the audience. Rounding out the main cast members is Colin Firth, in a truly villainous role as the owner of the local cinema house. Firth is an impeccable actor, and he crafts a truly despicable character that torments Hillary over the course of the film. Though, it is in the technical aspects of the film where the true magic of cinema lies in this film. 

Roger Deakins has once again shot a visually beautiful film. Each frame is a work of art, utilizing colour, light and darkness to craft a mesmerizing film. Most notably is the fireworks sequence in the first act, where Deakins makes it feel like you are experiencing fireworks for the first time all over again, and the beautiful sequence in which Hillary watches a film at the cinema house. Between these two shots alone, Deakins is a shoe in for a nomination for an Oscar as it's another extraordinary piece of art from him. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the film’s musical score, and they have written a gorgeous melody for the theme of the score that captures the heart of the story. It’s hypnotic and plays over and over again throughout the film, though I wish there was more variation in the orchestrations of it as it was largely the same iteration of the theme for two hours. 

It is a rare misstep for Mendes, but Empire of Light fails to capture that cinematic greatness that we have come to associate with him. There is no denying that Empire of Light is technically brilliant, but aside from a terrific lead performance from Olivia Colman, Empire of Light’s story struggles to weave a coherent story that fully engages the audience over the course of its two-hour run time, resulting in one of the biggest disappointments of the year to date.

RATING: 3 out of 5