Empire of Light – TIFF 2022

Empire of Light
A Wonderful Celebration of the Magic of Cinema, Marred by Problematic Plot Elements.

Empire of Light – TIFF 2022

A drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s.

September 8 to

September 18, 2022

A cinema manager connects with her new employee in . Hilary () is the duty manager of the Empire Cinema, located in a 1980s English coastal town. Steven () is a new employee hired at the cinema, which also includes the manager Donald Ellis (), who is engaged in an affair with Hilary, and the protectionist Norman (). Steven and Hilary develop a special connection in the cinema, though the latter's mental health issues begin to surface.

Empire of Light Synopsis

Empire of Light is the latest film from Academy Award-winning writer/director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917), chronicling the budding romance between two people in a faded old cinema. Academy Award-winning actor Oliva Coleman (The Favourite) stars alongside relative newcomer Michael Ward as the central protagonists of Hilary and Steven. The budding attraction between the two is disrupted by Hilary's declining mental health and the racism directed towards Steven, particularly by a local gang of skinheads.

My Thoughts on Empire of Light

Empire of Light is at its best when the film focuses on the magic of cinema. This is particularly true with Toby Jones' supporting character, Norman, who talks about how a movie is the illusion of life and how nothing happens without light. The best moment in Empire of Light comes when Hilary asks Norman to play a film for her, and she sits alone in the theatre, accompanied by the well-done score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Empire of Light also features some exquisite cinematography by Roger Deacons, particularly a scene of New Years' Eve fireworks from the cinema's roof.

However, despite being a wonderful tribute to cinema, Empire of Light falters a bit with its plot. Particularly problematic is Collin Firth's character of Donald Ellis, who repeatedly coerces Hilary to perform sexual acts on him in his office, eventually resulting in her having a mental breakdown. This subplot is only really in the film to create drama for the latter half of the film, and Collin Firth himself ends up relatively wasted by the end.

It has been more than two decades since Sam Mendes started his career on a significant high note by winning the Oscar for Best Picture for his debut American Beauty. He hasn't quite reached those highs since, and Empire of Light is a film from a filmmaker who has found a comfortable groove for himself. While Empire of Light is a wonderful celebration of the magic of cinema, the film is somewhat marred by problematic plot elements.

Trailer for Empire of Light – TIFF 2022

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.