WHAT I LIKED: The most engaging thing about Sam Mendes' 'Empire of Light,' is Olivia Colman's Hilary - not only because she's portrayed so well by an ever-perfect performance from Ms Colman, but because she's written as one of those characters whose layers you long to unpick.
We're introduced to her alone at home, being probed by a doctor, taking antidepressants, and tossing off her married boss (Colin Firth) at the cinema she works at in 1980s Margate. As we watch her more and hear her tell her story, we begin to realise that she's always looked for validation and fulfilment in the men in her life, but she's been left frustrated and alone by their mistreatment of her, and that ultimately leads her straight into the arms of her new, young, black colleague Stephen (Michael Ward).
Beyond those battles within her, much of the film is then devoted to exploring their relationship both outside, and within the cinema surrounded by their eccentric mix of colleagues. Their relationship works well as a device to prove to her that there can be good men in her life, but also that, like she advises Stephen, she should learn to stand on her own two feet rather than look for fulfillment from others first, and that ultimately makes for a brilliantly engaging central character arc.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: The biggest flaw in the film however is that Stephen is written rather one-dimensionally, so he winds up more as a vehicle for Hilary to play through her battles rather than as a well-rounded character of his own. That's sadly to the extent that we're never really clear what he's getting from their relationship, and that undermines the believability of the romance that's supposed to be helping Hilary develop as a character.
And it's not just Stephen that the script neglects either. There are a few bits about racism, but they're tokenistic, and so too is the way in which the cathartic power of film is glibly pushed upon Hilary towards the end. In fact, for the most part, little is made of the fact these folks work at a cinema (albeit apart from the fact Margate's The Empire provides an evocatively cavernous backdrop for Roger Deakins to capture Hilary's loneliness) and that feels like a huge missed opportunity.
That's a shame because Mendes has a real knack for translating complex scripts into evocative, visual masterpieces, but perhaps, as this is the first time he has sole screenwriter credit, he found distilling his own writing a more difficult exercise.
VERDICT: Sam Mendes' 'Empire of Light,' is a film with a fascinating central character portrayed wonderfully by Olivia Colman, but the unfocused script fails to do justice to any of the film's other promising ingredients