Colman inhabits Hilary with her customary fullness and impeccable judgment, always putting her energy into conveying the character’s churning, contradictory feelings rather than trotting out the virtuoso tricks and mannerisms that too often signify Great Screen Acting: English Division. When Hilary is at her lowest, with tears in her eyes and lipstick on her teeth, the sight pierces as deeply as seeing someone you know crater in front of you.  

Ward can’t match her because the material isn’t on the same level, but he’s still remarkable. His greatest achievement is convincing you that the character has his own inner life that’s as complicated as Hilary’s, even though there’s little in the script to support such a claim. The last 15 minutes nearly undo all the good the film’s second half has done: it feels as if Mendes is using a public calamity to forcibly merge the character study, historical/political epic, and Magic of Cinema elements that were on parallel tracks until that point. (Maybe the problem is that each of those tracks needed its own film.) Fortunately the concluding scenes pull the movie back from that particular brink, settling on a “life goes on” sort of ending.

“Empire of Light” never entirely coheres, but it’s worth seeing for the power of Colman’s lead performance and the expertly judged backup acting (by Firth especially; Ellis is a minor-league scumbag with delusions of respectability, and the actor presents him without editorial comment, which makes his actions feel more real). 

The true star of the film, though, is Roger Deakins, who has steadily become the closest thing to an heir to Gordon Willis that 21st-century cinema has allowed. Like Willis, who is best known for shooting the “Godfather” films and several classic paranoid thrillers, Deakins loves silhouettes, long shadows, and high-contrast lighting. He isn’t afraid to try to create an iconic, overwhelmingly potent image, but here—working in subtler key than he’s usually asked to play in—he seems to let the natural world guide his decisions. The film’s look errs on the side of simplicity, highlighting beauty that’s already present rather than superimposing it with technique and technology. 

There isn’t a dull or purely functional composition in the film, nor is there one that tries so hard to be weighty that it crushes Mendes’ wilting-flower characters. Deakins lets door frames and window frames, support struts, roof eaves, stairwell railings, and the lines of sidewalks and streets guide our eyes and create frames within frames. The movie even attempts some multi-panel effects, like a sequence of thematically similar paintings hanging on the wall of a gallery, and smuggles little grace notes into every scene and lets us find them on our own, seemingly not worried about whether we might miss them. Notice, for instance, how he and Mendes will put a reflective surface somewhere in the frame that lets us see the faces of characters placed in the foreground with their backs to the camera. You might not notice the other character’s reflection right away because they aren’t visible at every moment, only sometimes—as a real person would be.

Now playing in theaters.

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