'Empire of Light': A Middling Love Letter to Cinema
There has been a recent trend of famed directors making films that harken back to their youth, while also paying tribute to their love of movies. It can be argued that this started back with Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, a love letter to the specific era that Tarantino grew up in. But the films that fall in this category have become more personal, and often act as a representation of the director's own life. Take Belfast, for example, which is more less a tale of Kenneth Branagh's upbringing in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s. Now, Academy Award Winning director Sam Mendes has come forth with his own ode to cinema, but unlike Branagh's take in Belfast, Mendes tells a story of two unlikely souls who meet while working at a movie theater on the south coast of England in 1981. But while this film feels personal to him, he also takes the opportunity to talk about some larger themes and ideas, namely mental illness and racism. While these themes are relevant, and tie into our current sociopolitical climate, it often feels like Mendes isn't fully sure with what he wants to say with them, and that he isn't exactly the right director to tell some of these stories.
The film centers on Hilary (played Olivia Colman), a woman who works as the Duty Manager at the Empire Cinema. Her life is rather ordinary, but she soon finds her life changed when a young man named Stephen (played by Micheal Ward) begins working at the theater. The two quickly form a deep bond, and begin to fall in love with each other. Their romance plays out against the backdrop of 1980s England, amidst mounting racial tensions, mental illness, and the magic of the movies.
Sam Mendes is no stranger to tackling sensitive themes in his work, but he has also had talented writers to assist him in doing so effectively. This is his first solo screenwriting credit, which might explain why the film's heavier subject matter feels a bit hamfisted. This isn't to say that Mendes is a bad writer per se, but I'm not sure if what he is trying to pull off here is in his wheelhouse. He handles the love story between Hilary and Stephen exceptionally well, as well as the parts of the film that pay tribute to the movies, but when the film focuses on racism and mental illness, it feels a bit sloppy. While I can understand why Mendes would want to explore racism in this film, as it was and still is a major issue in England, he just doesn't seem to have much to say on the subject. It's as if Mendes had some ideas for a film about racism in 1980s England, but didn't have enough for a full movie and just tacked on some of these ideas to this film. It's not that these scenes don't make any sense within the context of the film, it's just that they aren't executed particularly well.
I could argue the same about how the film depicts mental illness, but I will say that this element at least feels a bit more defined in the context of the film. The film explores mental health through the character of Hilary, as we see how she is affected by her own mental health issues. Some of it feels rather generic, but it mainly works due to Olivia Colman's performance (more on her later). On a script level, though, it just feels so surface level, and doesn't really do anything we haven't seen before.
But the heart of this film lies in its romance, both in terms of its central love story and how it portrays the magic of cinema. It's clear that this is what Mendes is able to connect with the most, both as a writer and a director, and the scenes that focus on it are the best of the whole film. I almost wish that the film would have focused more on both of these elements, as they are genuinely sweet and honestly pretty uplifting. The dynamic between Hilary and Stephen is excellent, and there are many great scenes between them throughout the film. A scene where they go to the beach is particularly great, and represents a big turning point in the film as well. When the film focuses on their relationship, it soars, but when it shifts its focus to its heavier themes, it loses a little steam.
As an ode to cinema, Sam Mendes imbues a lot of heart and passion within the film. It is a highly romanticized view on the topic, but it makes perfect sense within the context of the film. This aspect of the film tends to get a bit overshadowed by everything else, but the undercurrents of it flow throughout the film. The film does allow this to come to the forefront a few times, with a scene where Hillary watches a film alone being the clearest example of this. I almost wish it would have explored the magic of the movies and the theatergoing experience just a tiny bit further, but the film does use this theme wisely, and keeps it from feeling too overdone.
The main component that keeps the film afloat lies in the performances from Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward. Colman has long been one of my favorite actors, as I don't think I've ever seen a bad performance from her. That streak continues here, as she is absolutely incredible. She has such empathy for her character, and takes some of the thinly written details regarding Hillary's mental illness and makes them feel more fully formed and realistic. As for Ward, this has the potential to be a breakout performance for him, and I certainly hope it is. While he made a splash in Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock, this film might boost his profile even further. He is giving a somewhat subtle performance, but it is also an emotionally resonant one. He embodies his character so well, and is quite charming throughout the film. Colman and Ward's chemistry is quite good, and the way they play off each other is electric. I wish the material that they're working with was a bit better and more fully realized, but they certainly make the best of it. I also have to shout out Toby Jones, who plays a smaller role in the film as the Empire's projectionist, Norman. He is a bit mysterious, but Jones plays him with warmth and gives the character a more lived-in quality. I kind of wish he was in more of the film, but he is still used very well throughout the film. He has a couple of scenes with Ward that really stuck with me, especially one where he teaches him how to switch projectors during a screening of Stir Crazy. It's one of my favorite parts of the whole film, and it is largely due to Jones's performance.
While the film struggles in terms of its script, it does manage to look quite beautiful. This is unsurprising given that Roger Deakins is the Director of Photography on this film, and he is one of our finest living cinematographers. While I wouldn't call this his best work, it is still quite lovely. The cool color palette he is working with is quite effective, and the use of light in some scenes is a nice touch as well. I was particularly enamored with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score. Reznor and Ross have become some of the greatest and most reliable film composers of the 21st century, and their score here is simply gorgeous. It's rather piano heavy, and has this almost wistfulness to it that fits the film so well. It's a rather tender score, and it's easily one of the best aspects of the entire film.
Empire of Light is deeply flawed, and handles its heavier themes rather clumsily. However, it is still an interesting love letter to movies and moviegoing, and the central love story is rather sweet overall. Perhaps in the hands of a different filmmaker, this could have been a more impactful film, and would have got some of Sam Mendes's ideas across more fully. As it stands, this is a bit of a hodge-podge, but it is at least a good-looking and well acted one. There are certain aspects that I can't help but like and appreciate, but the film's weaknesses do take quite a bit away from it. It's an admirable effort on Mendes's part, but it's clear that he probably wasn't the right person to tell certain parts of the story he has crafted here. Despite this, the film is still rather touching, and is rather emotional, even if its larger themes do feel a bit lacking.