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Flix at :48: Lush cinematography and too many social issues in 'Empire of Light'

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The poster for "Empire of Light" features three panels, one with Olivia Colman, one with fireworks, and one with Micheal Ward.
Searchlight Pictures

After the recent films "The Fabelmans" and "Babylon," movie lovers have another new release that sends a love letter to the power of cinema. This third film is "Empire of Light" which was released in a limited number of theaters in December last year (2022) and is now available on selected personal streaming platforms at home. Director Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary Road," 2019) does a diligent and heartfelt job with this love letter to the movies, but he also crams in a lot of other themes with it.

"Empire of Light" stars Olivia Colman ("The Lost Daughter," 2021) as Hilary, a solitary quiet woman working the counter in an old movie theater on the southern coast of England in 1980. When a new, and much younger, employee joins the team, Hilary's boring life is injected with passion, fear, and excitement. But this excitement causes some harmful consequences to Hilary's mental state.

Sam Mendes received multiple Oscar nominations in 2020 for his large-scale war film "1917." And he still has a skillful hand at telling private believable stories. (Think of "Road to Perdition" from 2002 and "Away We Go" from 2009.) "Empire of Light" is the first time Sam Mendes has directed from a screenplay written entirely by him, and the screenplay is inspired from parts of his childhood. Not only does the story cover the workings of a movie theater, it also covers the struggles of mental illness, the racial violence by white supremacists at the time, the fragility of human connection, and the importance of getting back up after falling down and starting anew.

But the longer the film continued, the more I felt it was trying to check too many boxes. So many societal issues are explored in this film, that toward the end I kept thinking, "Okay, so what is this supposed to be about?" "Can't I get a crystallized idea I can take with me when I go to bed tonight?" The screenplay does have some moments of poignant emotional truths, but it also has moments of rough transitions and poor dialogue. Was "Empire of Light" simply supposed to be a wistful plea to get people back to the movie theater to help them cheer up their lives?

What stood out to me most with this film was the captivating scenery by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has been nominated at the Oscars 16 times including once for this very film!) So many still shots are brimming with rich gradients of color, sharp frames of architecture, and sweeping vistas of the ocean horizon or the lush seats of the art deco movie theater. The actual theater building is shown with such a range of feeling, it serves as a beautiful metaphor of the leading lady's life. It's tidy, fastidious and well-functioning. But it also has large sections completely forgotten and unused. Showing silent empty spaces yearning for activity.

The keen cinematography helps keep "Empire of Light" from being a maudlin attempt to touch people's hearts. Instead, it's an okay film that doesn't quite grasp the focus and nimbleness it wants to.

Casey T. Allen is a native of Utah who graduated from Utah State University with a Bachelor's degree in English in 2007. He has worked in many capacities throughout USU campus and enjoys his time at UPR to continually exercise his writing.