Sam Mendes’ latest film, Empire of Light, is another beautiful collaboration with him and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who have previously worked together on Skyfall and 1917, the latter of which got Deakins his second Academy Award win. There’s no doubt he will get nominated again, as the movie’s visual language does most of the work for Mendes, but the film itself, unfortunately, leaves little to be desired.
What is this movie truly about? Another “magic of the movies” drama? Steven Spielberg already did this year’s with The Fabelmans, and it’s an utterly magnificent portrait of how one man’s passion for filmmaking could literally and figuratively move mountains and change someone’s perception of themselves. Is it a drama about a woman who, on the surface, seems stable enough but goes through a downward spiral as a cataclysm of events starts to take its toll psychologically? You should watch TÁR. Or how about a human drama centered around race and institutional (or not) brutality? Romain Gavras’ Athena is right there.
All these elements are found in Empire of Light, and, unsurprisingly, they feel like they belong in three different movies. And none of the storylines are powerful either, seemingly disconnected from the “grand picture” Mendes seems eager to tell. He wants to say something, but what exactly? That “movies are dreams that you never forget?” Yeah, I learned that from The Fabelmans; thank you very much. But beyond that facile commentary on the power of the movies, as Olivia Colman’s Hilary Small watches Hal Ashby’s Being There and is magnified by the big screen, there is nothing else to tell.
Sure, there’s the part where she has an affair with her boss (Colin Firth), who is a character that the audience will love to hate, as Firth plays him with impeccable smugness from the moment he appears to when he vanishes from the picture, or the storyline where she helps new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) at the cinema, and they also get into a quasi-affair. However, she is pressured by her boss to have sex with him in his office and falls in love with Stephen, complicating matters at the cinema. This leads to the second act’s mental breakdown, where she tarnishes her boss’s reputation at the gala premiere of Chariots of Fire, arguably the best scene of the film because of Olivia Colman and Colin Firth’s acting abilities.
I would’ve checked out long ago if it wasn’t for Colman and Firth carrying most of the film’s emotional weight alongside Micheal Ward, who gives a powerful breakout performance. The three of them, alongside Roger Deakins’ cinematography, make for a watchable experience on the big screen, visually enrapturing at every possible turn. But it’s a shame that the script lacks so much substance to make it work, partly because the film has no idea what to say and directs the audience to which storyline is the most important to follow. You’d think they would all cohere into something emotionally resonant, but Empire of Light ends on the biggest whimper I’ve seen from Sam Mendes’ career.
I’ve defended some of his more maligned films, like Spectre and Road to Perdition, but Empire of Light is a real bore. Since none of the storylines come together or say anything we haven’t heard of, the movie feels like a waste of talent, both in front and behind the camera. And as much as Colman, Firth, and Ward try to infuse their sensibilities in the movie, it isn’t enough to save it. Deakins will likely get an Oscar nomination (he may not win, the category is robust this year), but the rest of the film will be forgotten as nothing more than a mistake in Mendes’ career.
Empire of Light is now playing in theatres everywhere.