Empire of Light Review – TIFF 2022

Empire of Light Review - TIFF 2022 8
Empire of Light Review - TIFF 2022 7
Empire of Light
Director(s): Sam Mendes
Actor(s): Colin Firth, Olivia Colman, Toby Jones
Film Genre(s): Drama , Romance
Running Time: 113 min

I walked into Empire of Light knowing very little about the story or how it would unfold. Described as a celebration of cinema, it felt fitting it would be premiering at TIFF 2022, after we have all struggled with a pandemic over the past few years. Written and directed by Sam Mendes, I had high hopes for Empire of Light, but despite some incredible moments in the film, the overall story felt overstuffed, leaving little time to enjoy the core message or feel anything had an impact at the end of the day. 

Set at the start of the 1980s in England, Empire of Light centres on Hilary (Olivia Colman) a middle-aged theatre employee who is stuck on autopilot. Despite working at the ornate and Art Deco dream movie theatre known as the Empire, Hilary does not enjoy the movies, and in fact, simply goes about her day opting to drink alone at home after she clocks out.  

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That is the life Hilary leads until a young handsome Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the Empire as a ticket taker, shakes up her world, showing things she never thought possible. While it starts off as a friendship, the two quickly find a bond that is unlike anything either of them have ever known, and they become each other’s safe place from the many troubles of their lives and the tumultuous world of Britain in the 80s.  

There are a lot of complex issues tackled in Empire of Light, from sexuality, mental health, and even racism and bigotry, but it never goes beyond a surface level examination. While the movie is made to be a celebration of film and the cinema going experience, that is often sidelined to dive into one of the many themes, only to come back to it randomly without care or thought as to why. 

“Written and directed by Sam Mendes, I had high hopes for Empire of Light…”

Don’t get me wrong, there is something magical about cinema, and the movie theatre experience, even with its movie palace feel, and the trappings of something special, Empire of Light never finds its footing. I love the idea of looking at the many troubled periods of history through how film can help us through the darkness, but that never feels like it is achieved here. These are complex issues, and some very hard subjects, so to simply gloss over one to jump to the next, does each concept a disservice and leads to a hollow feeling at the end of the day.  

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Despite the issues, Sam Mendes knows how to make movies, and does so with skill. He brings out some amazing performances from the cast, and knows how to use cinema to express a feeling. While I may have my many gripes with the movie as a whole, few directors can make something this watchable out of something so problematic. That is an odd thing to say considering Mendes wrote the script, but with so many complex ideas, and a finite amount of time to bring it to life, things ultimately suffer if you can’t pare down to something manageable. 

There is a level of love for the movie theatre experience, and that is seen through most of the scenes in Empire of Light. Cinematographer Roger Deakins brings the Empire to life in a way that is loving, captivating and mesmerizing to behold. This is what I remember movie theatres bring when I first discovered movies, with old theatres like this slowly dying but still full of magic. The sea-side town in the 80s feels packed with life, and the many shots capture a moment in time we will never experience again.  

“…Empire of Light is a film that never finds its way due to the many ideas trying to steer the ship.”

There are also some fantastic performances by some amazing actors on display in Empire of Light. With actors like Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Monica Dolan, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow all supporting Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, it is hard to go wrong, even if the script is not up to the calibre they all deserve. I genuinely feel bad that I did not like it more, simply due to the talent giving it their all. 

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There are also some amazing moments in the latter half of the film that feel very much an ode to cinema, looking at the seaside movie palace as a place of wonder, with the projection booth a light in the darkness, bringing these still images to life. The careful look at the many aspects of the theatre experience from ticket booth to the power of cinema to lighten even the darkest days, and that all worked to lighten the mood. But even these great moments feel shallow after scenes of sexual harassment, white supremacists, and violence are all glossed over to move to the next scene and topic. 

Empire of Light is a film that never finds its way due to the many ideas trying to steer the ship. Despite the problems, it is certain to be a crowed pleasure, only wanting a surface level look at the many problems we all face. What could have been something fascinating, feels overstuffed to the point of confusion. While Empire of Light is worth a watch, it fails to achieve the lofty goals it set out, or to be a light in the darkness guiding us back to the world of film.  

Final Thoughts


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