Andrea’s film review – Empire of Light

Empire of Light ⭐️⭐️⭐️ – Review by Andrea Carnevali

A drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s.

This is the first of two films to come out in the UK this month about the “magical power” of Cinema. The other one is of course Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which I will talk about very soon (though it will come to no surprise to anyone who knows me to find out that I loved it).

Written and directed by Sam Mendes (Oscar winner with American Beauty and most recently the director behind big hits like Skyfall and 1917), Empire of Light starts off a real love letter to cinema: the images of the movie theatre being opened up to the public are so incredibly evocative, warm, cosy and beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, set against the backdrop of a mostly grey seaside town in 1980s Britain.

Indeed Mendes and Deakins manage to find beauty both in the bleakness of the town as well as, of course, in the grand interior of the Art Deco picture palace, lovingly recreated with such detailed care that could almost smell the popcorns from the main hall.

Unfortunately, this is not Cinema Paradiso and you’ll soon find out that the theatre itself is just one of the tangential settings for a series of stories which actually have very little to do with cinema.

One of these centres around Olivia Coleman’s character suffering from depression. Mendes’ heart is clearly invested in this: this is a tribute to his own mother, who suffered from mental illness. But as if that wasn’t enough, he throws is a story about racism, one about a bullying boss and one about infidelity.

It’s all perfectly watchable, if you like this sort of melodrama and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy a lot of it, but in the end, despite some splendid performances by Olivia Coleman (no surprise there) and Micheal Ward (the real revelation in this film), you’re just left with the feeling that it was all too un-focused, with too many strands and actually not enough of what would have really made it special.

Juggling all these strands not only pays a disservice to the stories themselves, some of which end up looking very superficial, but also dilutes the magic of the cinema, which I thought was the raison d’être for this film. At one point there seems to be more love towards a fireworks display than the films being screened.

One final note, which might spoil a little bit of the ending (do skip the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film), I found strange that Mendes decided to show the power of the cinema by having a character watching a movie alone in the theatre:  doesn’t the communal experience of watching a film with an audience mean anything? Is it just about watching a film in the dark on a large screen then. I don’t buy it.

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick, and a co-creator of the Chiswick In Film festival.

Empire of Light is on in cinemas now.

See all Andrea’s film reviews here: Film reviews by Andrea Carnevali

Chiswick In Film festival: Chiswick In Film festival will be back next year

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