Oliva Colman has done it again. Her dynamic performances frequently depict women in utter turmoil with nuance and ease—see The Favourite (2018) or Broadchurch—and Empire of Light (2022) is no exception. In this ’80s period film, Colman portrays Hilary, a middle-aged movie theater manager in an English coastal town. Not much happens in Hilary’s life: She goes to dance classes, eats alone in restaurants, and takes her daily lithium pills. She’s quite numb. This apathy is shattered by a budding relationship with Stephen (Micheal Ward), an exciting 22-year-old who works alongside Hilary in the theater. Stephen teaches her to love life by revealing the beauty of cinema and the joy that can be found in the everyday. Most of the film takes place within their theater, as director Sam Mendes wrote the screenplay during COVID-19, a time when the fate of most cinemas was unsure. However, the film is less of a love letter to cinema, and more of an attempted commentary on hot topics like mental-illness and race. The end result is murky. Certain aspects, like the acting and cinematography, shine bright. But the film’s confusing plot obscures these highlights, and leaves the audience struggling to keep up.
Colman’s portrayal of Hilary is consistently superb but she really shows her acting genius as Hilary’s mental health reaches a point of crisis. While at the beach with Stephen, a lighthearted and romantic scene is interrupted when Stephen makes a jokingly mean comment, and something within Hilary snaps. Her face twists, and in a fit of rage, she tears down the sandcastle, marking a startling change in an otherwise placid character.
The first half of the film offers hints of Hilary’s mental health issues—she takes lithium pills every morning—but it’s only when she consciously stops taking the medicine that the audience is reminded of her unnamed mental illnesses. Director Sam Mendes sought a subtle approach to Hilary’s mental illness, basing her actions on his own mother’s struggle with mental health and the steps she took to hide it. Mendes’ ability to make the audience forget about Hilary’s struggle for the first half of the film by portraying her symptoms as quotidian effectively critiques the way our society stigmatizes and suppresses conversations about mental health. Yet Hilary’s character is not reduced to a vessel for her illnesses, which many directors struggle to accomplish. The audience sees the everyday moments of her life—not just the extreme highs and lows. This deep dive into Hilary’s life drives the audience to empathize more intensely with her pain when we see her break down.
Beyond its character study, the film is also supreme in its cinematography. If you’re going to create a movie about the joy of the movies, it better be a cinematic spectacle and cinematographer Roger Deakins clearly understood this directive. The setting of the English coast offers a picturesque backdrop for the film with its beaches and lush greenery. Beautiful wide shots, such as the promotional image of stunning fireworks, are commonplace in the film. This is not Deakins and Mendes’ first collaboration, though: the two also paired together for 1917 (2019), which ended up winning an Academy Award for cinematography. This film certainly solidifies their status as a powerful Hollywood duo.
Unfortunately, Colman’s standout performance and the stunning visuals are not enough to save this film from ultimately being a letdown. In a film marketed as a love letter to cinema, movies don’t receive a lot of attention. Rather, Mendes explores issues as diverse as mental health, sexual assault, race relations, and age-gap relationships without a clear focus. The theater is simply a background for these other varied concepts to develop incompletely. Interestingly, it’s unlike Mendes to wander thematically. Most of his other films pick one major message and stick to it, like the horrors of war in 1917 or the dread of suburbia in American Beauty (1999). Perhaps Mendes is trying his hand at merging different themes or commenting on film’s ability to reveal the multifacetedness of reality. Or perhaps it’s Mendes’ unpracticed writing skills, as this is his first solo script. Either way, the result feels too muddled to be enjoyable.
However, even though the aforementioned concepts are all scrambled, none is more confusing or harmful than the film’s attempt at racial commentary. Instead of providing cutting analysis of the complexities of interracial relationships, it uses racism as a plot device. Firstly, it serves merely to mark the era that the film takes place, the 1980s. Characters frequently toss out mentions of the National Front, skinheads, and other references loaded with racist connotations for seemingly no other purpose than to remind us that this is a period film.
Next, the racism that Stephen faces as a Black man is utilized solely for Hilary’s character development rather than addressing its effects on his own life and psyche. This fits into a greater theme in fiction of issues of racial injustice being employed for the benefit of white character development rather than focusing on those actually subjected to such injustices. Mendes develops Stephen’s character quite well in the beginning of the film. We understand his dreams to go to university, his relationship with his mother, and his love of music. Yet, in multiple scenes in the second half of the film, Stephen is racially attacked, both physically and verbally. In one scene, he is beaten so badly he is hospitalized for weeks. After each of these incidents, there is very little insight into how Stephen processes these events. Instead, Mendes forces the audience to focus on Hilary’s reaction of shock. Stephen’s racial trauma exists solely to teach her resilience. The film’s commentary would be much more piercing if Stephen’s character was given the refinement it saw in the beginning of the film later on as well.
The root of the film’s problem with racial commentary lies behind the camera. A quick Google search of the film’s crew reveals that there were no Black people on the writing team and only one Black co-producer among five other non-Black producers. Mendes’ failure to fully grasp and convey racial tension as a white man highlights the necessity for Black people to be involved in the whole process of filmmaking, especially when the film deals with Black trauma.
Mendes’ Empire of Light is so close to being an awards-season sweep. However, its poor focus and questionable writing leave too much to be desired. While we are bound to see some rightful nominations for Olivia Colman and Roger Deakins, their contributions to the film can’t save it from its faults.