It’s wonderful that Mendes spent the pandemic making a movie about the irreplaceable vitality of movie theaters — even going so far as to paint them as one of the final strings in what’s left of our social fabric. It would have been even better if he spent the pandemic making a movie worth seeing in one.
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Empire Of Light is a sentimental film – the piano-heavy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross advertises that from the opening bars – but its message of love, tolerance and finding family wherever you can should make an impact in darkened rooms wherever it plays.
Despite Deakins and Mendes’ shorthand in framing gorgeous images, there are moments, especially in the second act, where the film could simply use a bit more energy. Luckily, for Mendes, Colman provides it soon after and when the movie needs it most.
While Colman peels back Hilary’s layers of grief and rage with all the ferocity and subtlety you’d expect from an actor of her caliber, even she can’t sell the joyfully beaming pivot required of her in an interminable sequence in which Empire of Light essentially becomes the ’80s equivalent of Nicole Kidman’s AMC commercial.
Colman, her eyes darting between hope and devastation, is so lit-up and specific (and funny, a quality that doesn't seem to get mentioned enough) that she lifts nearly every scene.
As terrific as Colman is, however, the film around her has a schematic and engineered quality not too dissimilar from Jones’ prized projectors.
Empire of Light is a sweet, heartfelt, humane movie, which doesn’t shy away from the brutality and the racism that was happening in the streets outside the cinema.
In the era when content is king, Sam Mendes still believes in moving pictures. Empire of Light is the proof.
Nothing in the film has a fraction of the dramatic impact of the emotional roller-coaster Colman’s performance embodies.
Empire of Light feels more like a sweet experiment on nostalgia and memory than an articulate film with something to say.