Acclaimed theater and film director Sam Mendes follows up his Oscar-winning “1917” with “Empire of Light,” and the two films could not be more different. One is a harrowing war drama on a grand scale, with explosions and sweeping crane shots, and massive set pieces featuring hundreds of extras; the other is a small, evocative portrait of one woman’s quiet desperation. The former is considered by many to be a modern anti-war masterpiece; the latter is… kind of okay.
“Empire of Light” is set in the early 1980’s, in the seaside town of Margate in southeast England. Although once a popular Victorian tourist destination, the town has seen better days, much like the art deco Empire Cinema from which the movie takes its name. Olivia Colman plays Hilary, a middle-aged cinema worker suffering from mental health issues. She is listless and lonely, her days uniformly uneventful save for the sordid and utterly joyless backroom trysts she occasionally shares with her married boss Ellis, played with uncharacteristic (and wholly believable) sleaze by perennial good-guy Colin Firth. Into Hilary’s life comes Micheal Ward’s Stephen, a young new cinema hire with whom she forms a warm friendship which eventually blooms into a surprising romance. Add to the mix a winning cast of supporting players and a subplot about renovating the grand old theater and you have the makings of a “Cinema Paradiso” type of love letter to movies…
… except this piece isn’t really about that. Yes, there’s a little bit in “Empire of Light” about the transformative power of celluloid, particularly in the first act. The scenes featuring the fictitious theater are guaranteed to make you wistful for the days of yore, a seeming lifetime ago when, instead of vegetating at home streaming online content, people actually went to an uncharted land known as “outside” to watch something called “movies” at some magical place called “the cinema.” But all that silver screen stuff in “Empire of Light” is really just a backdrop for a story about depression and racism and sexism and capitalism and May-December romances and following your dreams. And if you think that sounds like too much for one movie, you would be right. “Empire of Light”— Sam Mendes’s first solo screenwriting credit— lacks narrative focus, and this unfortunate quality diminishes the impact of what could have been a powerful, compelling film.
It also suffers from the inclusion of one of my least favorite screen tropes, which I call SPD, or Spontaneous Public Declaration. We’ve all seen it before: a character hijacks, say, a press conference— or interrupts a news bulletin, or commandeers a microphone at a rally, or whatever— to publicly express some uncontrollable emotion that had, until that moment, been kept private, much to the horror of the people in charge of the event. And while such a scene may be just about plausible enough for, say, a light romantic comedy, it does not belong in more realistic, more grounded dramas like this one. There is simply no way that someone would be allowed to take the microphone and awkwardly address an unsuspecting crowd the way one character does here. That person would have been barred from getting near the stage at all, let alone from making a speech! (At the very least, the sound people would’ve shut off the microphone before any damage could be done.) In the very next scene, that same character goes to the cinema lobby and does more or less the same thing again. To have one SPD in a “respectable” film is unfortunate; to have two is unforgivable. (Okay, rant over. Sorry.)
And yet, I did (for the most part) enjoy “Empire of Light.” Because despite its flaws, the movie is still quite entertaining. It’s hard not to get swept away by Sam Mendes’ sparse, confident direction, by Roger Deakins’s gorgeous cinematography, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ emotive score, or by Mark Tildesley’s lush production design.
But if this movie is to be remembered at all, it will mostly be due to the powerfully understated performance of Olivia Colman, who is always— let’s face it— the best thing in whatever movie or TV show she’s in. Her portrayal of Hilary (based on Mendes’ mother Valerie) is truly remarkable, and a good enough reason for you to go out and see this film. (After all, you can’t stay on your couch forever.)
3 crowns: good but not great
Empire of Light will open on February 22 exclusively at select Ayala Malls Cinemas and will also have sneak previews in time for Valentine’s Day (February 13 & 14).