I’m just going to say right off the bat that this was supposed to be a full length review, but as soon as I started writing, I realized…I just don’t have a lot to say about this movie. Empire of Light is a romantic drama directed by Sam Mendes and stars Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Tom Brooke. Nominated for Best Cinematography at the upcoming 95th Academy Awards, I decided to give it a watch to see why. While I was aware the film received rather mediocre reviews from critics and movie reviewers alike, I still went in with an open mind like I always do. Upon finishing the movie though, I unfortunately have to agree with what the majority of people are saying – Empire of Light is just kind of bland.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought the acting performances in this film were absolutely wonderful, but it was the story itself that felt rather dull and lengthy. With a near two hour runtime, I felt myself growing antsy and constantly wondered how much longer the film was going to be. While Empire of Light does discuss some important and serious topics like racism and mental health, I really wished they presented these themes in a more impactful manner. The middle section and build up towards the climax consisted of too much meandering that for me, a lot of the important themes seemed to get lost in the muddle. And though the film seemed to end on a note that tried to highlight the beauty of cinema, the story just wasn’t executed well enough that I felt connected to that sentiment (even though I fully believe in it).
Empire of Light isn’t exactly what I would call “eventful storytelling”, so it definitely needed some powerhouse performances to keep audiences engaged in its character and dialogue driven plot. While it wasn’t enough to keep me fully entertained, I was still incredibly impressed by the acting performances, particularly that of Olivia Colman’s. I was wowed by her acting range in this role, especially her ability to evoke such deep and raw emotions at a moment’s notice. Her character, Hilary Small, was certainly a difficult and complicated character to play, but I thought she nailed it – my favourite scene from her was when she had to act out Hilary’s explosive mental breakdown which was just a massive rush of multiple angry and frustrated emotions.
It was interesting though because the character of Hilary itself wasn’t a particularly likeable one. If anything, Stephen (played by Ward) was the one audience’s were meant to sympathize and connect with. And while Ward did well in this role, I really wish the writing was better fleshed out for this character. Stephen was such a pivotal character in this story, yet for some reason, I felt like he slowly slid out of view as the film progressed. He felt too stagnant for a majority of the film despite his lead actor status, and it just seemed like they didn’t know how to evolve his character.
But let’s quickly talk about the cinematography because that’s what brought me to this film in the first place! Was it good? Yes. Is it worthy of an Oscar nomination? It’s hard to say because I’m still disappointed that Top Gun: Maverick (2022) wasn’t nominated for this category. There were certainly some very beautiful shots in Empire of Light such as the fireworks scene, but I’m not sure I was tremendously wowed by the cinematography overall. Let’s just say I think I’d personally cast my vote elsewhere.
It’s hard to explain unless you’ve seen it, but Empire of Light just feels plain and mediocre. While I always head into movies with an open mind and no expectations, I walked away from this one feeling disappointed. The story and the messages it was carrying weren’t executed to my liking, and despite the actors all performing splendidly, at times I just felt bored. I’ve decided to give Empire of Light a rating of 5/10. It’s not something I see myself ever rewatching, though I’m glad I did give it a try. If you’ve seen this film and enjoyed it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on why! Although it didn’t quite work for me, if you’re one to enjoy dialogue-driven dramas, perhaps it’s one still worth your time.
Hi Cathy! Great review (I love that even your mini review has quite a bit to say). I saw this at a film festival a while back and I’m with you, it didn’t work for me either. It’s disappointing really given the director’s cred and phenomenal cast.
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Hi Ruth, thanks for commenting and for your kind words! 😊 Wow, it sounds amazing getting to watch films like this premiere at a film festival – I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t work for you either though!