Empire of Light (2022) Review

Valentine's Day is approaching and just in time for this offbeat period piece romance drama review of Empire of Light, now available for streaming on HBO MAX.

Some spoilers ahead!

Written and directed by Sam Mendes, and set during the early Eighties in a English coastal town, "Empire " is centered around Hilary Small (Played by Olivia Coleman of The Queen.) a lonely middle-aged duty Manager who works at the Empire Cinema near the seashore. Hilary lives a solitude life whose emotions have been lessened from prescribed Lithium, that is, until she finds herself in a May-December romantic relationship with a new employee, Stephen.(Michael Ward of Netflix's Crime Drama, Top Boy.) What makes this premise more interesting, is that Stephen is Black British and during an turbulent era where racial hostility ensued from the Skinheads. Aside of their interracial romance, Hilary’s dark secret brings an amount of challenges that may lead to dire circumstances.

Despite a 47% approval on Rotten Tomatoes,  Empire of Light's pros, far outweighs the negatives. Sure there were piecemealed ideas from Mendes' script
that could have been handled differently, but you have to give credit for its storytelling, Roger Deakins' cinematography, Trent Reznor and Atticus Fitch's impeccable score, the adequate pacing and best of all, Olivia Coleman's Oscar Worthy performance who is very convincing as our troubled protagonist who on the surface, is emotionally conflicted be it her bouts with depression further brought on by her abusive boss and loneliness. But the story gains its legs after a romantic encounter, leading to sudden happiness and euphoria, which gives her a sense of purpose. 
Hilary at first, reacts to Stephen in a stoic manner but sometime afterwards becomes infatuated and is unabashed with her feelings toward her new subordinate, to the extent of showing public displays of affection. Whereas, Stephen is hesitant because of his constant harassment from Kent's local racist thugs. What I found a bit contradictory about this film is how Hilary who is deemed "free spirited, " would only have sexual relations with Stephen within the Cinema's abandoned Ballroom, (referred to as the "pigeon coop") but would not allow him into her flat, until the remaining 20 minutes of the film, which the scene is devoid of intimacy.
Was she subconsciously ashamed or cautious of what her neighbors would think? Personally, I thought the sex scenes between Hilary and Stephen were minimal at best, when it should have been more explicit as middle-aged woman are capable of displaying sexuality. (Good Luck to You Leo Grande actress Emma Thompson, serves as a primary example). So, it’s acceptable had Miss Coleman showed a bit of skin during a steamy encounter as opposed to wanting the sex scenes removed from the final cut. 'Why can't they go for the kiss, and cut, and then pretend that it had already happened?'" She said in an interview with Daily Mail of how she felt embarrassed. 
While I can understand where she's coming from, I believe that in order to express art, one must take certain liberties to further exemplify upon the project. “Suffer for one’s art” amirite?
Olivia was a great choice as the Everywoman archetype who is capable of expressing her sexual feelings, as in reality, it's not uncommon. The third act gains much needed traction, when Hillary becomes more unhinged due to her rampant mood swings, followed by a "Me Too" moment that justifiably, leads to her opportunist boss Donald Ellis' (Colin Firth) downfall, followed by an all-too climatic scene where the Cinema is being ambushed by an angry mob of Skinheads, which looked like as if it was lifted from George A Romero's Dawn of the Dead. That latter being  cliché and shoehorned for dramatic effect, yet still complements the perspective from Stephen’s arc.

The film's closure was bittersweet, yet very cathartic as Empire had for the most part, accomplished what it was supposed to do. There are three plot devices throughout the film, and with  racial tension serving as the backdrop, Stephen has been scapegoated by the Kent locals for "taking their jobs" since the beginning of the Windrush Generation where Caribbean Black migrants for exploited in the UK, via cheap labor while not having the same rights and protection when being attacked by native white racists be they Skinheads or the Police. During an early scene, Stephen mentions the past-present atrocities committed against Blacks, such as Brixton, and a few other incidents. So yes, the challenged and ill-fated romance is symbolic with the storyline.

But not everything seems dour in Empire of Light. Actor Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger) was excellent as the sympathetic protectionist Norman who comes across as this sage, despite his backstory was limited to 3 minutes. There's a memorable scene where Stephen under the tutelage of Norman, operates the projector, achieving a can-do satisfaction of success. Also, Tom Brooke who plays as Hillary's protective coworker. Neil, demonstrates compassion and loyalty, even when risking his livelihood.
The third act again, stands out as the best from this Coming-of-age romantic drama. Aside from the shoehorned scenes where Stephen's arc ends up as a "sacrificial lamb" trope, there is a poignant moment when Hillary goes to the Empire where Norman is about to close of the evening and asks to see a movie-any movie. As she watches, "Being There" Hilary experiences joy during the run of the film. This can be seen as meta, for the escapism through Cinema. It is those brief pockets of experience that break the boundaries for those confined with less favorable situations, be it mental illness, job loss, or heartbreak which Hilary was confronted with. Touted as a romance drama, “Empire" in all intents and purposes is a love letter to Cinema, long before the advent of home video and streaming. 
Although many would dismiss it as merely “Oscar bait " material, Empire of Light is an emotionally charged indie, that's both immersive, and in some cases, sobering, where some can't help but feel empathy for the main protagonists, if not relate to their experiences. 
Mendes based his story from his love of cinema and his Mother's mental disabilities.
While it may not be the best film of 2022, I rate it as one of 2022’s most underrated. It's an emotional gut punch where even a cynical bastard such as myself, can respect this exceptional love story. Another example of how Rotten Tomatoes got it wrong.

If you or someone you know is suffering from Mental Illness, call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)


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