Empire of Light is a misguided, overly aestheticized slog built upon mawkish sentimentality.
Somewhere along the way in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, it becomes quite clear that this product is very much not the movie it has been advertised as in its marketing. That dawning realization makes the act of viewing the film akin to watching the proverbial train wreck in slow motion, though Empire of Light doesn’t so much go off the rails as never even make it on the tracks to begin with.
Mendes’ film is, yes, yet another film about the “magic of the movies;” Toby Jones’ kindly projectionist regales us with whispered musings of flickering images in the dark, and Olivia Colman weeps alone in a theater while watching Hal Ashby’s Being There. But that’s not really what the movie is about — Empire of Light is about a white woman named Hilary (Colman), suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, who falls in love with Stephen (Michael Ward), a much younger Black man, while working in an old movie house in the south of England in the early 1980s. If the act of reading that quick synopsis makes you cringe, beware: far more painful moments await in Mendes’ shockingly misguided schmaltz-fest, a movie that is trying desperately to be a comment on Our Moment™ and the power of cinema to change and heal, but which mostly ends up feeling like nothing more than a self-congratulatory wanking.
The problem here is that everything seems like an afterthought: the film’s attempts to comment on racism, its nostalgia for the communal experience of movie theaters — all of it comes across as nothing more than empty window dressing. For what exactly it’s not clear, because what is glaringly evident is that Mendes doesn’t really know what he’s trying to say either. But right around the time the theater comes under attack by a gaggle of skinheads, it becomes excruciatingly obvious that Empire of Light is in way over its head.
Movies about the power of movies are nothing new — this year alone as has seen quite a few, from the classical (The Fabelmans) to the more experimental (Three Minutes: A Lengthening). But those films managed to connect their ideas to something more personal and grounded and human in a way that Empire of Light never does — even that ubiquitous Nicole Kidman AMC ad contains more cinematic wonder. Instead, Mendes seems more preoccupied with assaulting viewers with aesthetics than developing any substantive ideas or themes. In that regard, the film is indeed certainly beautiful to look at, thanks to the ace work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Mark Tildesley, and costume designer Alexandra Byrne, but it all seems to be in service of very little. The film’s handling of racism is so trite and perfunctory, and its overtures to the Magic of Cinema so unbearably maudlin, that nothing here works on any level. Even the usually reliable Olivia Colman seems hemmed in by an underwritten character built to rely only on histrionics rather than any actual, complex character development. Heartbreak may feel good in AMC theaters, but in Empire of Light it feels mawkish at best, in service to a miscalculated slog making a desperate reach at relevance that far exceeds its grasp.