With a story about the need for human connection and the power of cinema, “Empire of Light” should have been a total winner from start to finish. Written and directed by Sam Mendes, the film is riddled with too many subplots and so many problems that it repeatedly stumbles over itself. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just a mess of one.
Set in a seaside town in England in the early 1980s, the film tells the story of Hilary (Olivia Colman), a lonely woman who works in a grand movie palace. Her employer is a cad of a boss (Colin Firth), who uses his status over her as a means to demand sexual favors. Hilary struggles with a history of mental health issues and doesn’t like taking her prescribed medication. She’s as melancholy as they come until a young and compassionate younger man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) begins working at the movie theater. The two begin a romantic relationship that lifts Hilary out of her depressed state and brings a new meaning to her life.
It’s a classic romance that celebrates the importance of human relationships, but Mendes tries to pack too much into his story. Hilary suffers from a troubling mental illness and Stephen bears the brunt of horrific racism, and they both face harsh realities of the world they both inhabit. The pair find connection and safety in each other, which is a beautiful sentiment, but there’s just too much going on for it to really land the intended emotional knockout. It’s unfocused and tries to tackle too many topics, which dilutes the film. Even worse, Mendes never successfully ties his themes together in a meaningful way, so all of it feels manipulative and forced.
Despite the missteps in the story, there’s so much to appreciate here. First, the cinematography (from the legendary Roger Deakins) looks absolutely gorgeous, and it’s the main reason to watch the film. It’s visually impressive and provides a sumptuous feast for the eyes, but it’s a shame the beauty of the film is mostly squandered by the messy plot. The same can be said for the performances, which are one of the film’s strongest points.
Coleman is an amazing talent who is as terrific as always, beautifully portraying a woman who is struggling under the massive weight of what appears to be a case of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She is never over the top but expresses her emotion in an authentic, heartbreaking way. Even during the scenes that showcase her full-on manic episodes, Coleman shows an enviable range of talent that’s impressive. Ward holds his own too, even if his turn as Stephen is much more nuanced and understated. They’re an odd couple whose romance is believable, which is one of the film’s greatest strengths. If only Mendes had chosen to focus more intimately on this unconventional relationship between two misfits who find a sense of purpose and belonging in each other, his film may have found more success.
“Empire of Light” turns out to be a different movie than is to be expected, and that’s okay. It’s unpredictable but not exciting, and the script does the rest of the film a major disservice.