Drama Empire of Light

For the Love of Cinema: A TIFF Review of ‘Empire of Light’

September 21, 2022Ben MK

As any avid moviegoer will tell you, one should never underestimate the power of cinema. No matter your age, gender or ethnicity, films have a special way of transcending both geographic boundaries and sociological barriers, uniting viewers irregardless of their individual backgrounds. And in Empire of Light, writer-director Sam Mendes delivers his ode to the motion picture, in this tale of two very different people and the lasting impact the art of cinema has on their lives.

It's the beginning of the 1980s, and the Empire Theatre is one of Southern England's best kept secrets. An old school movie house complete with velvet ropes and golden-accented decor, the theatre's location — picturesquely situated by the seaside — makes it a hard-to-miss attraction for visiting tourists. For its duty manager, a middle-aged woman named Hilary (Olivia Colman), though, the Empire is simply her workplace, nothing more, nothing less. A recovering schizophrenic whose frail mental state has made her susceptible to her boss' sexual advances, Hilary has never even bothered to watch a film on one of the Empire's two screens. However, when a new employee named Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the staff, it marks a true turning point in her life. Suddenly, Hilary feels something stirring deep inside her — a passion that she's never felt before. Meanwhile, Micheal, a young man who's no stranger to being on the receiving end of anti-black racism, has also discovered a new side of himself. And when the pair find themselves undergoing their own respective hardships, they'll turn to one another — as well as to the wonderment of the big screen experience — to help get them through it.

Intended as a love letter to cinema itself, what follows is a movie that endeavors to be as much about the celebration of films as it is about its characters' journeys. Despite the Oscar-winning filmmaker's good intentions, however, the result often falls short of these lofty ambitions. Suffice to say, those who adored Mendes' previous work — from American Beauty to 1917 — will still find Empire of Light admirable. For the majority of moviegoing audiences, however, this story of human connection simply fails to connect.

Empire of Light screens under the Special Presentations programme at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 59 min.

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