TIFF 2022 | Empire of Light (Sam Mendes, UK/US) — Special Presentations

By Meg Shields

They said it couldn’t be done. But someone has finally made a boring movie about Olivia Colman being horny. Directed by Sam Mendes, shot by Roger Deakins, and scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Empire of Light is a technically proficient but hopelessly superficial tale that follows Hilary (Colman), a listless movie theatre manager who decides to go off her medication only to experience a mental health crisis. Along the way, she forms a relationship with new hire Stephen (Michael Ward), an aspiring architect whose experience of racial violence in Thatcher’s Britain disrupts his life at every turn. “Wait a minute…,” you say. “I thought this was a film about the magic of movies? A Cinema Paradiso [1988]-style love letter to cinemas?” Bafflingly, the movie-house setting is all but incidental to Mendes’ agonizingly languid drama. Empire of Light could have been set in a SPCA or a novelty hot dog stand and you would barely have to change a thing. To boot, Mendes’ unsubtle invocation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the pragmatic threat faced by movie theaters in the wake of COVID-19 are so limp they feel insulting. There are a number of films at the festival this year that overstay their welcome. But considering that the one-minute Nicole Kidman AMC ad does more for cinema than Sam Mendes can do in two hours, Empire of Light might be the worst offender.