Empire Of Light Review: Sam Mendes Challenges Convention With A Unique Love Story [TIFF]

Set in a past-its-prime movie theater — a holdover from a long-gone era — "Empire of Light" is as much a celebration of the old as it is a treatise on embracing the future. The film is set in the early 1980s and represents a transitionary period for the theater industry specifically and British society as a whole. To us viewers in 2022, the Empire Cinema feels impossibly nostalgic; the days of film projectors and red velvet curtains are long gone. But "Empire of Light" looks back even further, lovingly lingering on glamor shots and posters from Old Hollywood. For the Empire movie house, its best days are firmly behind her.

And that's okay.

Written and directed by Sam Mendes, "Empire of Light" is an unconventional romance primarily concerned with questioning conventions. The film centers on Hillary (Olivia Colman), a sad, lonely woman working in the Empire cinema in an English seaside town. Her existence (like the theater) has become dull and largely empty over the years. However, her humdrum life is unexpectedly shaken up when the young and handsome Stephen (Micheal Wardis) is hired on. Despite being from vastly different backgrounds, there's an undeniable spark between them. As the two grow closer, he helps her see the world around her in a new light — for a time. 

Questioning social conventions

"Empire of Light" is a challenge to taboos — this much is obvious from the premise. Its central relationship is between Hillary, a white middle-aged woman stuck in a rut, and Stephen, a Black young man with his whole life ahead of him. Their sexual relationship is one that we never see represented in media: not only is it interracial, but also the woman is significantly older than the man. There are notes that this is scandalous or even potentially embarrassing, yet the film takes great care to present their intimate moments as sensual, sweet, and sincere (rather than being awkward or played for laughs).

In "Empire of Light," Mendes is also subtly deconstructing other, more nuanced, social rules and expectations. The healthy (at least initially) relationship between Hillary and Stephen is juxtaposed with the very unhealthy, yet more socially acceptable, relationship between Hillary and her much older, married, boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). This contrast highlights the hypocrisy in a society that more readily approves of an older man exploiting his female employee for sexual gratification than an older woman having a consensual relationship with a younger man. There's a stigma that comes with being an older woman, especially if one doesn't fit into very specific beauty standards. And by the end of the second act, it's clear Mendes is also trying to make a statement about the stigma women face due to mental illness.

Strong performances from Colman and Wardis

Colman gives an unforgettable performance as Hillary — possibly a career-best, and that's saying something. This is a woman who is firmly middle-aged. There's no vaseline on the lens here: Mendes finds a balance that accentuates the markers of her age while still flattering her best assets. Her beauty is the ray of sunshine that lights up her whole face when she's happy, the depth of the shadows flittering behind her eyes when she reads poetry. It's so rare for a woman, especially of this age demographic, to be presented as not only beautiful but also desirable — not despite her flaws, but because of the depth of her humanity. Hillary might not be glamorous, but she is charming, relatable, and kind.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a romance without some serious chemistry — of which there is plenty. Stephen is wise beyond his years, making him a fitting match for Hillary — they connect as equals, rather than it ever coming across like she's using authority over him or grooming him in any way. Wardis is very attractive on screen, but his performance is what really makes "Empire of Light" something special. His kindness and his loyalty endear him to the audience and make his actions in the last act believable.

There is not a traditional happy ending in "Empire of Light," and the plot does languish, which may hurt the film's reception.  This is not a romance in the sense of two people falling in love and riding off into the sunset together — instead, it ends on a cautiously optimistic note, showing two human beings who have grown from their experiences and have learned to embrace fresh starts. Starting over again is hard, and like with the Empire theater, the future may not present the glories of the past — but going forward, and accepting life for what it is and what it could be, is the best course of action. 

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10