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CIFF 2022: Empire of Light & The Banshees of Inisherin

October 13, 2022


Along with narrative films and documentaries from around the world – or around the corner, those being films with a focus on Chicago or Illinois – the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) will traditionally curate films that will inevitably be considered buzzworthy or wind up on year-end Best of the Year lists. The 58th edition of the venerable festival doesn’t deviate from that position- and why would it? The goal is to get butts in seats, after all. These are films that have generated much anticipation around them after their respective premieres at other festivals in the last couple of months and because of that they don’t really need any extra attention the way other films playing at the festival do because they haven’t been picked up by distributers yet.

So, while my approach to CIFF is primarily seeking out films directed by names that are foreign to me, I’m still curious about anything new directed by filmmakers I recognize and pique my interest. CIFF curators are counting on that. This is certainly be the case for the inclusion of “Empire of Light” and “The Banshees of Inisherin”, the latest from writers/directors Same Mendes and Martin McDonagh, respectively.

While both films have already premiered at other festivals within the last couple months and – unlike many other films playing at CIFF – have not only secured distribution from studios, they also have set release dates in the near future. As much as there is a need for variety in a festival lineup, including films that are bound to find an audience upon their guaranteed release may seem counterintuitive to the idea of discovering new voices at a film festival. Veteran CIFF attendees know to seek out films that feel like deep cut finds, rather than studio films or supposed year-end darlings. But nevertheless, there has to be films that will draw moviegoers of various viewing experiences included in the lineup.

“Empire of Light” is a beautifully crafted, personal film from Sam Mendes, a director who won two Oscars for his feature debut, 1999’s “American Beauty” and whose last three films have been two stylish Bond blockbusters (“Skyfall” and “Spectre”) and the epic World War I tale “1917” from 2019. This is a welcome deviation from his recent films and marks the first film he’s written, produced, and directed.



Said to be an ode to his past and a tribute to his mother, “Empire of Light” is a tender and heartfelt character study and a love letter to the movies…as in going to the movie theater. Set in the seaside town of Margate along England’s southeast coast circa 1981, the story revolves around a handful of employees at the once-majestic Empire movie palace. Among them is Hillary (the always great Olivia Colman) the senior manager of the crew is a quiet and solitary figure whose life consists of lonely repetition. Despite the toxic and smug manager (Colin Firth), there is a feeling of family amongst the employees such as the loyal projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and clerks Neil (Tom Brooke) and Janine (Hannah Onslow). Their work dynamic changes when a new ticket-taker Stephen (wonderfully played by Micheal Ward) is hired, a young, open-eyed Black man who gets along instantly with everyone, but develops a special connection to Hillary. As they grow closer, past and present revelations for both of them surface that complicate how the two (and all around them) view life and love from their own lens.

There are moments when the topics and storylines Mendes presents in “Empire of Light” seem to stick out like the movie title on a marquee rather than coalesce into a flowing narrative, the compelling characters and immersive setting make up for it all. The cast Mendes works with here is superb throughout, embodying characters with subtle nuances and genuine naturalness. Colman is great as usual and really gets to show a good range of emotion in her character’s arc. Ward is the standout though, giving a soulful performance that elevates a role that would typically a gateway for the audience. Toby Jones does phenomenal character work with his part, delivering some poignancy to his lived-in role. The screenplay comes across as overly ambitious in the way it emphasizes three different subjects in sometimes jarring ways, “Empire of Light” works best at exploring these subjects as a workplace drama that delves into the lives of different co-workers.

Mendes reunites with cinematographer Roger Deakins for the fourth time on “Empire of Light”, who captures the titular theater with loving light and the kind of artful care of a collector who maintains a cherished antique. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a tenderly composed score that accentuates the solemnness of the setting and one that fits the personalities of the characters. The sight and sound of the film is simply beautiful and warrants a revisit in and of itself.

Some will see “Empire of Light” as another heavy-handed salute to movies, but it offers more than that thanks to the complex characters and it hits just the right notes of our own nostalgia for the movies (specifically movie theaters). It reminds us of a period where leaving your home and going to see a movie was an adventurous and transporting experience and also how certain movies remind us of pivotal moments from our past. In the case of Mendes’ story, the movie theater offers needed escapism at at time when Britain unraveled into recession, unemployment and rampant racism.



Another period piece set in the UK is “The Banshees of Inisherin”, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who reteams with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, his leads from the brilliant “In Bruges” from 2008. Let’s just say, it’s been too long and these three need to make a film every three years. No matter the genre, more from these three would be wonderful. For McDonagh, this is his first film since 2017’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” won a handful of Oscars (including Best Picture) and it’s an utterly enjoyable tale of friendship and loneliness that unfolds like a darkly comedic fable.

The story is set on a fictional remote isle of the west coast of Ireland in 1923, not far from the civil war of the time which can be heard in the distance near Galway Bay, where we find two lifelong friends, Pádraic (Farrell) and Colm (Gleeson), suddenly on the outs. Pádraic is confused when Colm doesn’t meet him at the pub for their traditional afternoon rendezvous and instead finds his friend sitting alone inside his cottage. When Colm finally does show up at the pub, Pádraic is stunned and even more confused when Colm coldly tells him he’s done being friends with him. Simply put, Colm finds Pádraic dull and cannot fathom wasting anymore time sitting across a table and listen to him drone on and on about his little donkey’s shite.

Confounded, Pádraic tries to figure out what he has done to offend his friend, but he doesn’t realize it’s not just one thing. Colm has come to the point in his life where he’d rather devote the time he traditionally wastes away at the pub with Pádraic to making musical compositions on his violin. Although he shares this with Pádraic, the poor guy can’t understand how Colm can simply cut him out of his life and end what he’s always considered to be nice conversations. Since Pádraic can’t seem to honor Colm’s request to not talk with him any longer, he takes his request to an drastic ultimatum and threatens to cut off a finger on his hand for each time Pádraic attempts to engage in conversation with him.

With Colm removing himself from Pádraic’s daily routine, the simple man is forced to confront what his life is all about. He shares a small cottage with his book smart sister, Siobhán (a wonderful Kerry Condon, known for her voice work in the MCU as Tony Stark’s AI F.R.I.D.A.Y.), who looks after him as he tends to the various farm animals on their meager property. With Colm being his drinking buddy and sole pal on the island, what else is he to do? Has he ever had to think about who he is and contemplate life? Another islander, the local policeman’s troubled son, Dominic (a great Barry Keoghan), starts to latch on to Pádraic, but the kid has no filter and although Pádraic tries to be nice to him, he longs to continue the friendship he had with Colm. Typical of island life, everyone knows everyone and knows all that is happening…even if they don’t, they’ll make it up and word travels fast. With the stubborn Colm maintaining his stance, the now fractured friendship he had with Pádraic turns violent and leads to an irreversible feud.

Made in eight weeks in the summer of 2021 on Inishmore and Achill, two islands off the west coast of Ireland, “The Banshees of Inisherin” certainly benefits from its setting, emphasizing how different life isolated from more densely populated areas is and how limiting it can be. The cinematography by Ben Davis (who lensed McDonagh’s “The Seven Psychopaths” and has worked on a handful of MCU blockbusters) makes the most of the captivating location, focusing on earth tones, lush greens on rolling hills and the craggy paved roads the characters travel on. McDonagh also reunites with composer Carter Burwell, who provides a simple and memorable score that fits the mood and tone of the Irish isle.

McDonagh has always been known for his sharp and witty dialogue, yet “The Banshees of Inisherin” also serves as a reminder that he also excels at guiding an ensemble cast. Sure, the focus is primarily on Farrell and Gleeson, and they are once again phenomenal together (with Farrell delivering some of his best work to date), but the supporting players here are just as integral and important to the overall story and McDonagh does a fine job fleshing them out, offering fully realized characters. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is compassionate and humourous, while also being an observant and reflective look at friendship between two men, one simple and one stubborn. While the story could benefit from providing some more reasoning into Colm’s drastic ultimatum, this is clearly Pádraic’s story and Farrell does such a fine job getting us to root for his naively sweet character.

If I hadn’t already been given access to these two films ahead of their CIFF showings, I would’ve held off and waited till their scheduled theatrical release dates. However, I’m also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and have voting obligations leading into the beginning of December, which motivates me to see anything I can as soon as I can…especially those films destined to receive buzz or nominations, be it from the Chicago critics or any other organization. Yet when it comes time to determine how to approach CIFF, knowing full well I won’t be able to see all of this year’s 94 feature films and 56 shorts, in three different locations (some offered virtually only for Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin residents, I’d rather seek those films that are still searching for distribution and need the attention and word of mouth that films directed by award-winning directors really don’t need.

That being said, “Empire of Light” and “The Banshees of Inisherin” are great movies that I thoroughly enjoyed. Based on their pedigree of previous work, any film by Mendes or McDonagh will automatically be on my radar. I don’t even have to know what they’re about (and most likely it’ll be to my benefit if I don’t). It just so happens that these two dramas have some similarities: both are period pieces set in the UK, albeit very different times and places and both are also a poignant look at relationships and personal desires, yet in very different ways. Maybe I’m reaching with such similarities and I’m arriving at such observations after watching them back to back, but sometimes the stories of other peoples lives, even in different times and places, can have a through-line effect on a viewer.



“Empire of Light” RATING: ***  – screening at CIFF on Saturday, October 22nd at 5pm (CST). click here for ticket details. It opens in select U.S. theaters on December 9th.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” RATING: ***1/2  – screening at CIFF on Wednesday, Oct 19th at 8:15pm (CST) click here for ticket details. It opens in select U.S. theaters on October 21st.

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