So I’m still catching up on reviewing all of the films that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The next one that I’m going to be talking about is the new film by Sam Mendes Empire Of Light. I love Sam Mendes. A huge fan of American Beauty and Skyfall in 1917. I was really looking forward to this. However, it pains me to say that this is one of the most mediocre films that I saw at the Festival this year.
Empire of Light follows a whole bunch of things really. First and foremost it’s about the relationship that forms between two people who work at a classic movie theatre in 1980s England. It’s about the magic of movies and The Human Condition but the film stretches itself thin by trying to also be about racism mental health and misogyny.
There are a lot of things I like about this movie, but the way that it lightly touches on these many topics without actually delving into any of them in any wheel capacity is certainly not one of them. One of the film’s leads Michael Ward is a black man.
The weight of the film touching on racism at the time and its reverberations today is profoundly one note and poorly constructed altogether. The level of nuance and detail that it employs to discuss such a heavy and serious subject is akin to the level of introspection you would expect from a children’s movie.
Empire Of Light is very black and white, simplistic, and doesn’t explore racism very much, as it only highlights it. I felt the same about the way that it tackled misogyny. That element of the film is a lot less prominent than the racism aspect so it does get a little bit of leeway but it is also very clear-cut with no layers or subtext. The subtext in this film is just text.
The film deals with mental health in a more substantial way than both its discussions of racism and misogyny. However, like everything else in the film it comes and goes as it pleases and doesn’t really let us sit with any of it. It’s difficult to feel all that moved by the mental deterioration of one of the main characters.
When it ultimately feels somewhat inconsequential that’s the real problem here. None of the film’s issues really feel like they carry very much weight or consequence. They all just happen. The film’s central theme of communal power of the movies does have a bit more force to it. It does ring a little louder than the others. However, it too is more like a thesis without properly backed arguments.
I like the core concept but there are moments that illustrate this point that cinema can bring us together and help us overcome all adversity. However, to substantiate this claim and so much of the film doesn’t really explore this idea that it doesn’t really feel so much like a core concept of a film or one of the most foundational aspects of the film instead it feels more like an additional element which is hugely disappointing but this is all writing problems and yes writing is obviously incredibly important.
I’m not diminishing that movies are made and broken by their story and their writing but the presentation of Empire of Light is so amazing and magical. I actually found myself invested in the film purely on the back of its wonderful technical merits and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is stunning transportive and immersive.
The film’s use of light and colour is remarkable and it’s one of the best-looking films of the year. I was routinely blown away by the level of craft on display in the visuals and that is unequivocally one of the film’s greatest strengths. I also really liked the production design that is one gorgeous movie theatre.
I love the detail and the lived-in quality of this Classic Cinema and the entire film set and props were phenomenal. The score by Trent Rezner and Atticus Ross is one of my favourite aspects of the movie. This continues their seemingly endless streak of really solid film scores.
The film’s central melody is memorable and used tastefully. It’s not overbearing or repetitive. The score’s overall vibe matches the film’s tone and visuals exceptionally well. The other thing I really liked was the performances.
Olivia Coleman is amazing as always. She embodies this character so fully and does a marvellous job of balancing the character’s many conflicting emotions. She can be very funny and charming and likeable and also sort of heartbreaking and pitying. She was great Michael Ward was excellent as well.
He’s got great repartee with Coleman and he’s a very watchable performer. He’s more subdued and restrained than Coleman and it works tremendously for his character. The supporting cast including Colin Firth and Toby Jones is great as well. Overall there was not a weak link on the performance side of things so I don’t know.
I’m pretty mixed on this overall. The writing is all over the place and terribly unsubtle in the communication of its themes with an overly ambitious subtextual payload. This dilutes the strength of each idea until there’s nothing more than passing references to important topics.
The film’s technical qualities notably in a score, cinematography and production design as well as its very strong performances sort of balance it out for me. I kind of enjoyed it. However, I think it is the worst film I’ve seen from Sam Mendes and one of the weaker films at the Festival this year. I’m giving Empire of Light a 6 out of 10.