In the vacuum created by Hollywood’s current dry spell of mediocre movies, A-list directors have turned to the tried and true method of producing “love letter to film” movies. A “love letter to film” comes about when a writer/director bases the plot and setting of the movie around some part of film history. This style is familiar in films like Hugo (2011), Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019), and Licorice Pizza (2021). Jumping into this genre is writer and director Sam Mendes. Known previously for masterpieces like Skyfall (2012) and 1917 (2019), Mendes gave us Empire of Light in December 2022.
The film follows Hilary (Olivia Colman), an aging, mentally ill theater employee, and Stephen (Michael Ward), who is a young black man struggling with his appearance in 1980s Britain. Despite the tense atmosphere surrounding the topic of race in the 2020s, Stephen’s arc is dealt with in a mature way; never overshadowing the dynamic between himself and Hilary. Both main characters work at the Empire Cinema, which is preparing to host the world premiere of the movie Chariots of Fire (1981). Hilary and Stephen struggle to fulfill their duty to clean up the dilapidated theater as their developing romance becomes a distraction. The story culminates with Hilary and Stephen moving in separate directions after both are admitted to different wards for their respective ailments. Hilary goes to the mental ward for rehabilitation while Stephen is admitted to the emergency ward after he is assaulted by a racist mob in the Empire Cinema.
Despite the interesting plot, I did not find the story of Empire of Light as cathartic as I thought it should be. The main scene of this movie shows up roughly 44 minutes into the film. Norman, the projectionist at the theater, gives Stephen a tour of the projector booth after asking him to help transfer rolls of film from the delivery truck to the theater. After setting the film canisters down, Stephen begins a slow walk between the projectors while Norman explains why the art of film is so magical. It is clear that this atmospheric, contemplative, delicate scene is what inspired Mendes to make the film. If the rest of the film received the same attention and love that this one scene did, it would have turned out so much better.
A main theme in Empire of Light is the loss of the magic of movies. The 1980s introduced the birth of blockbuster movies, along with a historical low point for theater attendance. This theme is present in most “love letter to film” movies, and it is explored effectively through the setting and characters. The characters themselves are wonderful, in part due to the performances of Olivia Colman (The Crown), Michael Ward (Top Boy), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), and Toby Jones (The Hunger Games). Not once did it occur to me that these were actors and actresses putting on a show. It is plastered all over the trailers for the film, but Olivia Colman’s performance is stellar. Tom Brooke’s character Neil, the box office attendant, was also a flawless addition to the film.
In addition to great characters, this is also a very pretty movie due to Roger Deakins presiding as the Director of Photography. If Deakins is behind it, it is guaranteed to be fantastic, and his work on Empire of Light does not disappoint. Every shot is crafted with the utmost care and precision to create a wonderful aesthetic. Another aspect of this film’s vibe that must be addressed is the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Known for scoring The Social Network (2010), Gone Girl (2014), and Pixar’s Soul (2020), Reznor and Ross once again combine edgy melodramatic synth, haunting piano, and operatic bass to create their most airy soundtrack yet.
Rotten Tomatoes is split between 45% from the critics and 75% from the audience. IMDB takes the middle ground at a 6.6/10, and I think that is about right. As far as movies go, Empire of Light is not bad, but I would not recommend it to anyone other than a film junkie. Hugo and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are much better films to relish in nostalgia and the history of the art form. Overall the movie leaves a lot to be desired in terms of story and a central focused theme. However, the characters and look of the film are perfect.