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#TIFF22 Review: Empire of Light (Special Presentations)

September 17, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

Empire of Light, the latest film from writer-director Sam Mendes, is a solid period piece that also serves as a very personal work from the British filmmaker. It’s set in a seaside town in the 1980s, based on the time and place where he grew up, and tells a story that is loosely inspired by his own mother’s struggle with mental illness. What really sets the film apart, though, is the fact that much of it takes place inside an old movie theatre.

The main character is Hilary (Olivia Colman), a middle aged woman who works at the Empire selling concessions, under a manager (Colin Firth) who asks for sexual favours in his office. But things change with the arrival of Steven (Michael Ward), a young Black man who gets a job at the theatre. Hilary forms a bond with him, opening her eyes to the increasing racism that is prevalent in Thatcher’s England.

At the centre of Empire of Light is another incredible performance from Colman, who embodies the role of a somewhat eccentric woman with mental health challenges without veering into stereotype. It’s an empathetic portrayal, at times manic and other times quiet and introspective, with Colman doing an exceptional job of capturing the nuances between big confrontations and other scenes that play silently off her face. Ward delivers an engaging supporting performance, as his character tries to hide the impact that being made to feel like he doesn’t belong is having on him.

The story itself is a bit simple at times, and the screenplay can feel underdeveloped as a character study, with not all of its subplots being equally fleshed out. The film also keeps going a little too long at the end. But Mendes still stages some beautiful and stirring moments along the way. The main appeal of Empire of Light is seeing a movie that is primarily set inside an old Art Deco theatre. It’s largely focused on the collection of characters who work there, including a bittersweet role for Toby Jones as the projectionist in love with the process of loading film reels into the old projectors.

The production design of the theatre is wholly impressive, and a magical space to be immersed in. The film was shot by Roger Deakins, and his cinematography is expectedly gorgeous, with rich uses of colour including deep reds and golds. The visuals are complimented perfectly by a lovely musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with the film’s mix of images and sound often working on a purely emotional level. As a love letter to old cinemas and the power of movies, Empire of Light serves as an effective and well-acted drama that is beautifully crafted on a technical level.

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 12th – 3:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Tuesday, September 13th – 3:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 17th – 5:00 PM at Royal Alexandra Theatre

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