Release Date – 9th January 2023, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 55 minutes, Director – Sam Mendes
In the turbulent days of the early 1980s a romance begins to form between a young Black man (Micheal Ward) and an older white woman (Olivia Colman) in the cinema that they both work at.
After the awards success of the largely direct and focused 1917 – the narrative generally refraining from tangents due to the not-quite-one-shot style – Sam Mendes’ follow-up feature feels structurally almost the complete opposite. A jumble of themes and ideas relating to racism, mixed-race and age-gap romance, cinema, mental illness, a reflection on the early-80s and more make up the just under 2 hour course of Empire Of Light. All tinted, rather well by Roger Deakins, in a glaze which should go down well with the members of tame Facebook nostalgia pages who remember the good old days when you could go to the butcher for meat.
We largely follow cinema worker Hilary (Olivia Colman). While dedicated to her job she finds herself harassed by her manager (Colin Firth) who uses her to have an affair. However, Hilary’s life begins to turn around when new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) arrives. It’s here that Mendes begins to flirt with ideas of a mixed-race and age-gap relationship, flirt being the key word as such elements occasionally feel brief and buried other under ideas. While accepted by the other staff Stephen’s presence brings unrest from others, particularly during a mass National Front protest which passes by the cinema.
While working well enough such sequences feel as if they have dimmed effect not just due to the fluctuating focus of the film as a whole – having to settle from one thing to another – but also, to some extent, the lack of focus on such themes overall. Part way through Toby Jones’ passionate projectionist begins to explain the way projectors work and just how great cinema can be. This conversation seems to last longer than any reference to do with race that has come before it. As a whole the film feels widely unfocused wanting to capture so many elements that writer-director Mendes remembers from his childhood and teenage years without ever being able to properly whittle them down to a more consistent set of tones and focuses.
Throughout a number of events and sequences find themselves lifted by the, as expected, rather good score courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. In many ways it’s the technical elements, such as visuals and sound, which help to lift up Empire Of Light and lift up the fittingly tame events. Events so tame that each time the characters swear – and it turns out there’s a fair deal more swearing than you might expect – it almost feels out of place with the rest of the surroundings. Bringing in a further element of unevenness to the proceedings. What we may get is watchable and likable, and it may do well with a particular group of older viewers, but as a whole Empire Of Light feels too busy and unfocused to be anything above that. The individual elements are fine, but they change too frequently to create any form of grander connection beyond the surface of what’s there.
While watchable and generally likable there’s little beyond the surface of Empire Of Light due to its frequently changing tone, style and focus, preventing it from rising above a dramatic nostalgia-page-tinted view of the early 80s.