TIFF Review: “Empire of Light”

Toronto International Film Festival 2022 Special Presentations

Perched on an English seaside, it’s glowing marquee towering above its surroundings, sits the Empire Theatre. It’s the early 1980s, and the Empire has seen better days, although vestiges of its former glory as a former movie palace are evident in its elegant lobby, two red-curtained screens, and projection booth papered with crinkled photos and posters of movie stars of days long gone by. In a closed off area upstairs, the past encroaches on the present even more so, as more movie screens and a ballroom complete with grand piano intact sit dark and abandoned, now housing only birds and sad memories of what uses to be.

But the Empire serves only as the backdrop for director Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” a drama that centers around the theater’s current close-knit staff: ticket takers, projectionist (Toby Jones), and front of house manager Hilary (Olivia Colman). “Empire of Light” wastes no time establishing that Hilary is a lonely middle-aged woman, unhappy with her current situation. She spends the holidays alone. Doctor visits allude to some health issues she’s reluctant to acknowledge. She sneaks back into her married manager’s (Colin Firth) for illicit rendezvous, but longs for real connection. She ends up finally finding that connection in a surprising place: Stephen (Micheal Ward), the theater’s new, younger ticket taker. But just why that connection forms in the first place is where “Empire” falls apart early on, and never recovers. Hilary seems drawn to Stephen’s sensitivity, but why he’s attracted to her makes no sense. The affair that evolves from their time spent working together at the theater is perplexing and lacking in any sort of chemistry.

In fact, the entire film seems confused on just what it’s trying to say. Hilary makes some half-hearted efforts to assert that, guess what, racism is bad after witnessing Stephen— a Black man— be subjected to slurs in the street and bad attitudes from customers at the theater. If “Empire of Light” is Mendes’ ode to the magic of movies, he doesn’t really swing the story in that direction until the end, when Hilary— on the mend from some unspecified mental health issues—decides to finally watch a movie in the theater after refusing to do so for years. Movies can help us through life, but the supposition that after one viewing of the 1979 Peter Sellers-starring drama “Being There” that Hilary—starring in her own knock-off of the Nicole Kidman AMC ad as she sits alone in the auditorium, staring up at the flickering images on the screen—is suddenly going to be okay because she’s excited about movies now is shallow and hokey.

Colman has never not given a decent performance, but Mendes’ screenplay fails to take advantage of having one of today’s most talented actors on board; it’s her least interesting role to date, one that allows little room for nuance. Ward’s role is equally as vapid, his own wants and needs never really clear as his sole purpose of existing in this movie is for the benefit of the white woman he likes for some reason. And there isn’t enough interplay between the rest of the Empire’s employees to make them really feel like a family, even though they all get some nice little comedic asides here and there.

It’s difficult not to consider “Empire of Light” in tandem with Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” which also premiered at TIFF this week (you can find my thoughts on that film here). Whereas Spielberg’s film fleshes out his adoration for movies alongside his characters’ wants and needs, in “Empire of Light,” it feels shoehorned in, as if Mendes realized at the last minute that he needed to make this film set primarily in a movie theater more about movies somehow. Between that and characters that are already lacking in complexity, I don’t know that there is a genuine note to be found anywhere in Mendes’ film, which not even the god Roger Deakins’ cinematography can make more interesting. We’re already sitting in the movie theater: we don’t need to be told in such a clumsy manner why movies are great.

“Empire of Light” will be released in theaters on December 9. Runtime: 113 minutes.

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