December 5, 2022

VIFF 2022 | Olivia Colman Shines – An 'Empire of Light' and Cinema

"They should just see a beam of light."
Micheal Ward Toby Jones Sam Mendes | Empire of Light
Vancouver International Film Festival
VIFF 2022—Accomplished British director Sam Mendes continues the current trend of filmmakers fictionalizing elements of their own real lives in the romantic prestige drama, Empire of Light, as inspired by his mother's mental health struggles. Paying tribute to the influence of the cinematic experience, the film is set at a once glorious but now rundown neighbourhood movie theatre ("the Empire") in the coastal English town of Kent in the early 1980s.

The always lovely Olivia Colman stars as a lowly, middle-aged theatre worker who's remarkably unmoved by the magic of cinema despite her chosen profession. When a handsome, young Black employee played by Micheal Ward appears, things temporarily brighten up for her. Both Toby Jones and Colin Firth round out the almost too talented cast as fellow lobby workers, a cantankerous projectionist and the ornery theatre manager, all making for an unconvential interracial May-December workplace romance.

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the diminishing glory of old movie theatres through a sumptuously nostalgic looking sheen with a fleeting sense of faded memories. While the theatre palace within the film feels like an appealing and very real place to see motion pictures, its overall aura falls a bit flat despite Colman's unforgettable performance and Ward's natural entusiasm.

Mendes is clearly working through his own issues (in his first solo script and only second writing credit) through a rather sleepy drama. Empire of Light goes through the motions in acting as an ode to movie-going while shoehorning Britain's murky period social issues surrounding race amidst Thatcher's rising political nationalism. As a film, it's often enjoyably sentimental enough but still altogether hokey.

Empire of Light screened at the 2022 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations series.

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