“Empire of Light” is the first solo screenplay written and directed by Academy Award winning Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, 1917). Visually the film is pleasing and well-shot. Couple that with an outstanding musical score and “Empire of Light,” becomes in part, a visual and audible love letter to the majestic movie places of yesteryear, highlighting not only the theater but also what film projection can bring to the screen. This part of the film reminds us of all of the wonders of film and the magic it brings into our lives.
Unfortunately, this beautiful ode to the movies takes a back seat to the main story of the film. “Empire of light” is primarily a story of two outsiders in their British community who find kindred friendship that leads to a tryst. Through it all, they help each other grow into better versions of themselves.
Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a middle-aged spinster who suffers from mental health issues related to the mistreatment from the men in her life. So, when Stephen (Michael Ward) becomes her colleague, his kindness and curiosity impresses Hillary as they both begin to open up to each other due to each of them seeing each other through their faults or differences. This relationship brings stability to Hilary, while bringing the sense of being seen and heard to Stephen. Together they help each other come out of loneliness and instead embrace their community of misfits at the theater where they work and beyond. Both Colman and Ward deliver strong performances with good chemistry and are supported with good performances by the supporting cast.
The third part of this film is a social commentary on the discrimination of 1980s skin head movement in Britain. This is part of the main issues that Stephen faces as he is one of the few people of color in his town. Unfortunately, his particular commentary feels almost haphazard, underdeveloped, forced and ultimately distracts from what was otherwise a story of two opposites of find attraction in their similarities. Perhaps the historical significance of this social commentary is lost to those neither British, or old enough to remember this terrible movement.
In closing, while the direction and acting in this film are structurally sound and well done, the film feels disjointed. Somewhere in this film is a really good movie. Unfortunately, the three parts of the story feel like they oppose each other, rather than working together to tell a story of significance.
2.5 stars out of 5.