September 19, 2022

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Empire of Light” & “Triangle of Sadness”


EMPIRE OF LIGHT (Searchlight/Disney – December 9):  Sam Mendes takes the first solo screenwriting credit of his long career on Empire of Light, a personal film inspired by his youth and his mother.  The story is centered around the seaside Empire movie theater, a once-grand palace that by the early 1980s has seen better days.  That’s true of the staff as well, which includes a quietly abusive manager (Colin Firth), a veteran projectionist (Toby Jones) who sees his job as something of a sacred task, and especially Hilary (Olivia Colman), who runs the concession stand and steers the ship on a day-to-day basis.  We come to understand that Hilary is emotionally fragile and trying to cope with a bipolar condition.  The status quo of the Empire staff is shifted by the arrival of Stephen (Micheal Ward), a 19-year-old Black ticket-taker who gravitates toward Hilary.  Stephen represents a refuge, a hope and a huge risk for Hilary, as the emotional highs and lows of a relationshp exacerbate her condition.  Mendes works in a quiet mode on Empire of Light, with resplendent photography by the great Roger Deakins that bathes the action in an elegiac gold-tinged light, and production design by Mark Tildesley that creatres a world out of the Empire, which has unused annexes above the auditoriums where the Empire extended in its heyday.  Colman is riveting in a role Mendes has acknowledged was inspired by his own mother, and Ward proves himself an expert partner to her work, while also anchoring the sociological aspects of the story about racial life in Thatcher-era England.  Empire of Light is the kind of film (older-skewing, as much about mood as plot) that’s finding it most difficult to get box office traction these days–somewhat ironically, since even though it’s set decades ago it’s already set against the backdrop of a fading film industry–but it’s a lovely piece of work that deserves to find an audience and to be seen on the big screen.

TRIANGLE OF SADNESS (Neon – October 7):  Ruben Ostlund’s latest assault on the bourgeoisie is structured in three chapters, all featuring the characters of the models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who tragically died at the age of 32 a few weeks ago).  The first and mostly tightly scripted is basically a duologue for the couple that traces the complex power structure between them, as Yaya is far more successful than Carl, but passively aggressively expects him to pay for things like meals.  The second, on a much larger scale, is a Bunuel-esque political allegory that finds Carl and Yaya on a luxury cruise headed by a dissipated Marxist Captain (Woody Harrelson), which culminates in a sequence that seems designed to tell the most famous scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life to hold its bodily functions beer.  The final chapter is inspired by Wertmuller’s Swept Away, and has Carl and Yaya among the passengers marooned on a seemingly deserted island, a place where power belongs to the people who can actually do things, rather than those who can only buy the services of others.  Ostlund isn’t one for subtlety, and at 143 minutes, Triangle of Sadness tends to pound its messages into the audience’s head.  As the story becomes increasingly broad and didactic, one comes to miss the early section, which allowed for some psychological complexity.  Still, with a pair of Cannes Palme D’Or awards in just 5 years (for The Square and Triangle), not to mention a Jury Prize for Force Majeure before that, Ostlund’s satiric commentary is clearly hitting a chord.  Triangle of Sadness is more of what he’s been doing, only bigger.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."