Back to the 2022 list! The Wheel of Destiny has chosen Empire of Light. A solid and oftentimes odd film that finds its strengths in the brilliant performance of its lead juxtaposed with the beauty of its cinematography and the serenity of its music, but doesn’t reach the heights of its potential.
A discontent worker at a struggling English seaside theater in the 80s finds renewed passion when a new younger man takes up employment and an interest in her.
Sam Mendes + Olivia Colman + Colin Firth + Roger Deakins + Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross is a pretty good formula for success and this film had a substantial amount of buzz on it heading into its pre-Christmas release, but that seemed to dissipate fairly quickly after its release. It is an interesting case study of a film that is not the sum of its substantial parts.
Sam Mendes has established himself as a high-quality filmmaker over the years since winning Best Director (and Best Picture) for American Beauty back in 2000. He showed that he could take on a franchise character like James Bond, with success, and make a stunning World War I epic in “1917” just a couple of years ago. However, this was his first foray into directing a film where he wrote the screenplay entirely by himself and some of those growing pains show.
As I said, he’s a very skilled filmmaker and he knows how to let the strongest elements of his movies do the talking. That is still the case here, but when I list the film’s strongest assets the screenplay isn’t high up on the list. That’s not to say it’s garbage either. There are some strong characters, the lead especially, and the dialogue is emotional and effective at times when everything is moving in unison, but it’s figuring out exactly how all the characters need to interact and, more importantly, why things start to get bogged down.
Olivia Colman is amazing as always and one scene, in particular, is just astonishing. That may have been the finest single scene of hers on film, so I was shocked she didn’t get into the conversation for Best Actress especially portraying a very tangible character struggling with mental health. Hers was definitely one of the 5 best performances of the year and I know at least one name in the finalists’ group that shouldn’t really be there. Plus, it is worth considering that Colman has had a tone of success and recognition lately so it’s easy to how and why the voters move on things like this.
The thing that may have been most off-putting for voters, critics, and audiences alike was Mendes’ choice to pair her romantically with someone half her age in Michael Ward. He gives a strong performance, and no disrespect is intended, but the idea that this energetic young Black man with a zest for life would be helplessly attracted to a sad, desperate middle-aged woman with no self-esteem is a massive stretch. But hey, opposites attract, right? The courtship doesn’t move naturally even though Mendes attempts to build that bridge out of some shared sympathy (maybe trying to draw back to American Beauty). It ultimately is a sweet but flawed story of connection and intimacy between two very different people, but it’s fairly easy to see down to the end of their road and that undermines the point that Mendes appears to be making.
It also seems like a bit of a miscalculation to have Colin Firth and Toby Jones in but not really take full advantage of that. They are just too skilled of performers. Jones gets to have a role that kind of makes him the narrator and it’s his voice that does most of the heavy lifting in the trailer but Firth is used as a means to an end and that does a disservice to him and to the audience. Firth is always a strong screen presence but his character is there just to make one event happen and then he’s gone. An odd choice.
Roger Deakins is of course a legend when it comes to cinematography and that is one of the film’s strongest points. He was nominated for an Oscar, maybe because of his name or maybe because he was able to capture the beauty of a fairly limited palate and breathe life into this film’s aesthetic. The same goes for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who have quickly become among the elite when it comes to film compositions. They were not nominated for this film but the score is one of the best assets the film has.
Maybe down the line in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see a softening on this one because it does have its merits even if it didn’t live up to the height in a year where there were other films that were more directly about film being made by other high-profile filmmakers. That said, I hope Mendes learns from this experience moving forward because he is a great filmmaker.
Recommendation: If you can set aside or have avoided the hype altogether, this movie is still worth watching.
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