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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Empire of Light // Film Review

Though at times calming, arresting and empathetic, the various ideas that make up Empire of Light are as fleeting as the specs of dust in Toby Jones’ projector.



Director Sam Mendes’ ‘passion project’ rushes through its subjects like film reels. It is at once a story of mental illness and of estrangement, while also serving as a microcosm for 1980s race relations and workplace gender politics. Each of these subjects is explored in some detail, but all without much in the way of elegance or indeed, convincing interest from Mendes.


Instead, the film’s social subjects are unified under the singular beam of light from a film projector. In the world of Empire of Light, cinema is not only an escape for its characters, but a solution to their problems. In this reality, theatre attendants are awarded prosperous careers, and a well-selected film can even cure even the most troubled mind. Cinema, the film seems to say, can be the key to unlocking any community issue.



In one scene, a Black man is briefly shielded from a racist mob by the glass of cinema doors, while another sees a woman empower herself with a babbling speech at a film premiere. Each of these scenes is filmed with expert craftsmanship by Mendes and his regular cinematographer Roger Deakins (who shoots on digital, ironically), but there is a misplaced sense of grandeur here. Empire of Light wants to capture the great and full meaning of cinema, but as a result ends up with precious little to say about its many real causes.

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