Colman & Ward Are Stellar In Sam Mendes’ Bland Film

Feb 2, 2023

Academy Award winner Sam Mendes returns to the big screen to give audiences a glimpse into his appreciation for movies, music, and pop culture. Mendes’ latest intersects 1980s U.K, a time during great political and racial upheaval, with the importance of film and music to showcase how these two unrelated matters could bring people from different demographics together. Mendes directed and wrote the screenplay, which stars Academy Award winner Olivia Colman and breakout star Micheal Ward. While the script enables the two leads to put on an acting showcase, Empire of Light acts less like a profound story about human connection amidst dark times and more as an inapt exhibit of one too many themes.

Olivia Colman stars as Hilary, a lonely middle-aged woman with a complicated past and mental health issues. Hilary manages an English costal town cinema, Empire, where she’s joined by an eclectic group of employees who bond through music and movies. Newcomer Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the bunch, longing to escape the town in which he faces daily microaggressions and racism. Slowly but surely, Hilary and Stephen find solace in each other, developing a sense of belonging through their unlikely, yet tender relationship. And soon, they come to experience and understand the healing power of cinema and music— especially when one has someone to share it with.

Related: Olivia Colman Leads Sam Mendes’ Ode To Cinema In Empire Of Light Trailer

Olivia Colman and Michael Ward in Empire of Light

Through Empire of Light, Mendes attempts to blend trauma and the compassion for such with community and the importance of pop culture. As isolated themes, they certainly could stand on their own as compelling pieces to inspire human connection. But the script barely scratches the surface of these concepts in meaningful ways. Hilary’s chronic mental health issues now sees her on Lithium, which results in her numbness to the world around her. Even an inappropriate relationship with her boss (Colin Firth) — an obvious abuse of power dynamics — leaves her numb to declining sexual advances. It isn’t until the new employee, Stephen, the young, Black, and handsome aspiring architect swoops in and inadvertently inspires Hilary to kick the meds, leaving her feeling inspired and ready to take on life anew.

Hilary and Stephen gradually come to appreciate each other’s company, which leads to a budding romance that feels a bit perplexing despite the chemistry between the two leads. Viewers see Hilary’s attraction and reliance on Stephen, but the film never explains the reciprocity. In hindsight, they bond over trauma, with Mendes sprinkling in overt examples of racism that don’t amount to anything as spectators (including Hilary) look on in bewilderment. In these moments, it makes it difficult to determine what exactly brings these two unlikely people together when the opportunities to act as partners publicly never meet the light of day.

As a result of some of these screenplay inconveniences, Mendes’ story feels like an early (and underwhelming) first draft with too many ideas pushed forward. Hilary and Stephen’s relationship blends with community, which blends with the importance of cinema and music. But all these things feel like isolated, if important, matters that never quite coalesce to make an adequate story. With the plot seemingly centered around human connection, viewers will have a difficult time buying into its believability, especially under the circumstances presented in the feature.

Despite the somewhat failed attempt to create a poignant story about the power of community with respect to both mental health and race issues, Empire of Light still contains some valuable elements from a viewer’s perspective. Mendes reunites with Academy Award-winning director of photography, Roger Deakins, for the fifth time in his career. Where the script fails to pull in the magic from a storytelling perspective, Deakins’ cinematography captures it with an ease. In particular, the luxurious auditoriums, the concession stands against the red carpet, and even the rooftop skyline all make for magical insights into Mendes’ memory and love of theater. That aside, the film would have been better off had these moments actually been incorporated throughout instead of a hail-Mary attempt at giving Hilary a modicum of inspiration by the film’s end.

Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light

There’s also the incredible acting that viewers can look forward to. Whenever Olivia Colman is starring, one can almost guarantee an exceptional performance, even if she’s given very little material to work with. With Hilary, Colman captivates while demonstrating the various emotional states of her character. She is simply sensational in how she navigates the roller coaster of feelings. Micheal Ward also delivers a remarkable performance as Stephen. Perhaps it’s because he’s had to face similar negative experiences when it comes to race or because he was able to incorporate his own input into the character. Either way, the performances from both lead actors are integral to the positives of the film even when other important components tend to falter.

It’s not at all surprising that Mendes’ first original screenplay (which he wrote on his own) would contain themes of racial turmoil. The inspiration for this project came at the height of the pandemic when the director reflected on the world around him as well as memories from his past, after all. Yet none of the film’s themes blend together appropriately, even when one may suspect a great film will break through. Though there are heartwarming moments, they never amount to anything other than to say things well and widely-known: Mental health issues require compassion and racism is bad. And when it comes to the idea that movies can help one escape reality, it’s just that — an idea. In Empire of Light, even the cinema as a setting is an after-thought. Unfortunately, this film will be, too, come its release in theaters.

Next: Four Samosas Review: Wes Anderson Inspired Film Is Heartfelt & Hilarious

Empire of Light releases in theaters on December 9. The film is 119 minutes long and rated R for sexual content, language, and some violence.

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