Review: There is some remarkable cinematography and sound littered throughout Empire of Light, but the script written by Sam Mendes is way too weak in its foundation. The movie strains too hard to make you feel anything, and the end result is that you ultimately feel nothing.
I can’t say critical reviews were glowing for Sam Mendes’ latest project Empire of Light coming out of the festival season and awards circuit. Mendes is generally a celebrated auteur, so when his films drop and blow away a fee weeks later, I feel less inclined to seek them out urgently. American Beauty was a real coming out moment for the filmmaker, and Skyfall and 1917 felt like someone grabbing the industry by its horns and not letting go.
Yet, like I mentioned, Empire of Light felt like it came and went in a moment’s notice. There was little talk about a crew of visionaries that have worked on some of the last decade’s best original pictures. So when this movie hit streaming services this week, I figured I’d at least give it a shot and see what all the fuss (or lack thereof) was about.
Surprisingly, Empire of Light isn’t the complete dumpster fire that I was led to believe by the near-universal hate that it received. Is it good? Not really, but there’s enough talent around the edges to make it semi-watchable. The craft is all there, but it’s feeling the weight of a Sam Mendes’ script that has little to say beyond a cry for help for movie theaters nationwide, which is so funny because so few people showed up for Empire of Light because it had nothing to say.
Roger Deakins serves as the head of cinematography and it shows. Nearly every shot of Empire of Light is bursting at the seams with color and style. It’s unbelievably beautiful to look at. At times I got so lost in it that I was oblivious to what was happening in the story (to be honest, those times were my favorite with the movie). It shouldn’t be surprising at this point to see Deakins working at such a high level, but he shows an ability in Empire of Light to completely elevate such a messy story.
The mastermind behind visual spectacles like Blade Runner 2049, Sicario, and even Sam Mendes’ own 1917 proves that he’s at the top of the pyramid by himself. Even with Empire of Light, (a movie that I can’t see myself returning to under any circumstances in the future) the craft is undeniable – and it starts at the hands of Roger Deakins and his cinematography.
There’s also the lethal duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross behind the score, which I found to be completely intoxicating and overwhelmingly beautiful. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the Nine Inch Nails duo has been behind some of the best scores this century (for my money, their contributions to The Social Network stand as the best since the turn of the millennium). In fact, I like to write reviews while listening to some of their soundtracks and the Empire of Light score had been entrenched in my mind long before I even saw the film.
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I’m always down to see what Reznor and Ross are able to cook up so I was excited to see how they would fare in Empire of Light. Again, there’s so much solid craft here! How could this fail? Well, I venture to guess this may just be the last studio script that Sam Mendes gets to work on for a while. Mendes doesn’t have the greatest track record as far as studio filmmaking, but I’m utterly speechless as to how this got by so many people. It floats on and on without making any real statements beyond serving as a lifeless “love letter to film.” Honestly, I’ve been decently harsh on movies selling out to be about the movie-making process, but this may be the worst example.
Ever since I wrote my review of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, I’ve found myself growing away from it – but even that feels like a more fully realized version of the film industry. Even if it takes some wild swings-and-misses at trying to show the audacity of Hollywood, it makes more of an attempt at trying to be unique than this.
Many praised Olivia Colman for her performance and even predicted possible Oscar buzz for the acclaimed actress, but I even found her to be dreadful and completely unlikeable here. There’s no charm or grace to a character that shows a rather surface and unintelligent portrayal of Bipolar disorder. Mendes seems to come up with Colman’s character without any real insight or understanding behind motivations or morals.
Micheal Ward plays her love interest Stephen, and he feels like the ultimate beating heart of Empire of Light. The film really shifts in the second half to be about his struggles of identity and success at his stage of his life, but the movie muses around too much to make any real grand statement. It doesn’t give his character enough time in the first half to make the second half feel like anything. Its void of emotion altogether and I’m not real sure what Mendes was trying to suggest with his character. With that being said, Ward feels like the most affecting and empathetical character of the bunch and he really sticks out from the rest.
But there’s too much talent here to deliver such an underwhelming, generic and lifeless drama. Empire of Light is technically glorious and emotionally flavorless. I’m quite interested to see where Sam Mendes goes from here because this wasn’t it and 1917 hasn’t necessarily stayed in public conscious like it did in 2019. I like that film more than I like this one, but neither feel like the work of a master filmmaker. They feel like the works of a director who desperately needs good source material and scripts to shine – ideally written by others.
Watch Empire of Light on Hulu, Max, and VOD
Empire of Light Cast and Credits
Olivia Colman as Hilary
Micheal Ward as Stephen
Toby Jones as Norman
Colin Firth as Donald Ellis
Tom Brooks as Neil
Tanya Moodie as Delia
Hannah Onslow as Janine
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editor: Lee Smith