The greatest cinema sin is to create something that evokes no reaction. There are bad movies that will imprint their awfulness into your mind, great movies that stand above the rest, and even mediocre movies that have the power to thrive in memorable mediocrity. And then there’s Empire of Light, an utter misfire of a drama that isn’t so bad as it is nothingness wrapped in a shiny bow.
Despite starring the venerable Olivia Coleman and with Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Skyfall, 1917) behind the camera, Empire of Light tells the emotionally flat story of a woman with mental health issues who works at a movie theater. She starts dating a much younger coworker (Michael Ward) because the script calls for it, but she’s also having an awkward, largely one-sided affair with her boss (Colin Firth). Because the script calls for it.
And that’s it.
The movie bills itself as “a drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s,” which in hindsight tells me the marketing department had absolutely no fucking idea how to describe the plot in a way that would get butts in seats.
I don’t blame them.
Coleman is good I suppose but the poor Oscar winner is tasked with playing an emotionally troubled character in a movie devoid of emotion. Her mental issues seem sorely out of place in this movie, and yet her portrayal of a woman in distress (sometimes) is really the only thing Empire of Light has going for it. She also has no chemistry with Ward, but the material really gives them no time to develop it in a meaningful way.
Empire of Light also feels like a love letter to cinema in some way or form, but the movie theater setting plays more like a random choice than anything central to whatever the hell Mr. Mendes intended to say.
Oddly, Empire of Light is not a miserable movie watching experience. While I’d be hard pressed to call it “entertaining,” the movie looks nice enough, moves at a steady pace, and is never, fully, dull. But it’s a paradox, because the movie simultaneously is a step down from Mendes’ typical visual storytelling capabilities, the pacing isn’t great, and it’s a pretty fucking flat experience.
Empire of Light is mediocre to the core, but not memorably so. It’s a movie without a purpose. No reason for being. And for that, it should be punished to immediate obscurity.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.