'Empire of Light' movie review: Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins paint a hopeful tale
Empire of Light is Mendes’ most light-hearted work since 2009’s Away We Go. Deakins’ exceptional vision finds order in chaos, light in the darkness, and warmth in coldness.
The name of Roger Deakins attached to a film like Empire of Light is comforting because if, instead of Sam Mendes, it was some other British name like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh under the director’s credit, we would’ve probably gotten a drabber effort than what we got here. I don’t mean this negatively, but I think the involvement of a consummate master of light like Deakins was apt for a picture involving two broken and tortured souls. He and Mendes place Olivia Colman and Michael Ward in the most picturesque and opulent settings, irrespective of their inner turmoil, and it doesn’t seem jarring at all.
Deakins’ exceptional vision finds order in chaos, light in the darkness, and warmth in coldness. If one were to imagine the whole film as an aquarium, you’d find it less murky, even if its occupants aren’t happy about living in it. Some of the most memorable moments include two characters making love as soon as they’ve helped a bird recuperate from its injuries or the same couple seated against the backdrop of decorative lights filtered through alternatively tinted glass windows, or fireworks going off in the background after a spur-of-the-moment kiss, or a woman sitting alone in a movie hall watching Hal Ashby’s Being There and getting overwhelmed by emotions.
Hilary (Colman) and Stephen (Ward) are battling two different demons in 1980s England—the former, mental illness; the latter, racism. A middle-aged duty manager employed at a movie hall in a seaside town, Hilary is a bit of a mess, psychologically speaking, and Colman’s casting ensures the film is in the right hands. The film’s attention to her is unwavering, even when other characters arrive. She is one of those gifted performers whose face tells you what is going through the character’s mind without saying a single word. Hilary’s mental condition also makes her a pawn in the hands of her boss, Ellis (Colin Firth), a married man who takes advantage of her sexually, something to which she obliges owing to her loneliness. But she doesn’t remain an obedient slave for long; one anticipates a chance at payback and liberation when the young black man, Stephen, is employed as an usher in the same theatre. Hilary sees in Stephen a potential love interest, despite the vast age gap, which adds to the pre-existing complications that comprise bipolar disorder and racism.
Because these above threatening factors constantly loom over these characters, Empire of Light occasionally evokes the mood of a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour or Cinema Paradiso. But Mendes is careful not to get too sentimental or morbid. One powerfully affecting scene has Hilary breaking down in her flat after being reminded of a harsh reality by Stephen. In another powerful scene, this time one that puts Hilary in a more dominating position, she recounts the terrible past experiences caused by toxic men, beginning with her father’s history of cheating on her mother. The reluctance to tell her mother about it was due to a misplaced sense of loyalty, which explains her relationship with Ellis. But despite the cynicism engendered by such experiences, there remains in her a faint glimmer of hope about meeting the right man, age differences notwithstanding. Hilary is so enamoured of Stephen that she hasn’t given enough thought to the trials and tribulations that a man of his background has to undergo since the day he was born.
For some, it might seem a tad unrealistic to have a woman like Hilary behave as though she doesn’t understand the depth of the racial tensions in the country. “You should read the papers,” he tells her. One could forgive this ignorance as the side-effect of dealing with too many personal problems. Empire of Light is one of Mendes’ better films—dealing with tender emotions and vulnerable individuals in a way he hasn’t done since the extremely intense suburban dysfunctional drama Revolutionary Road (2008).
Thankfully, Empire of Light doesn’t reach the overwhelming extremes of that film. Despite the vicissitudes of seasons that accompany the third act, it ends on a hopeful note.
Aside from Deakins, the other names that lend a delicate touch to the film are Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose sombre, piano-heavy soundtrack features guest appearances from notably upbeat songs like Joni Mitchell’s ‘You Turn Me On I’m a Radio’, which has now found a spot in my playlist.
When measured against his previous films, Empire of Light finds Mendes at his most light-hearted since Away We Go (2009). I wish we got to see this mellower side of him more often.