Director Sam Mendes comes off the stunt WWI film 1917 to craft another period piece, Empire of Light, set in a big old cinema in a small English coastal town in the 1980s. There’s something about the locale (shot brilliantly by Roger Deakins) that conjures up other films about cinemas—Cinema Paradiso, of course, but also Purple Rose of Cairo, The Last Picture Show and others—as well as ‘80s films set near boardwalks, like Betty Blue or Quadrophenia. In short order, Mendes crafts a rich mood for his actors, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Micheal Ward, to play out a story that starts out as cinematic love letter but twists into perhaps one too many directions.
Colman plays Hillary, co-manager of the Empire, an aging art deco-like movie theater that still offers thrilling interiors. She has dutiful sex with her married boss (Firth) in his office and seems to be tamping down some hidden tragedy in her life. Along comes Stephen (Ward), a young black man who wants to study architecture, but takes a job at the Empire tearing tickets in the meantime. He and Hillary hit it off, in that cougar-cub kind of way, and this unleashes a lot of unintended turmoil, as you’d imagine, in a small English coastal town where skinheads are on the rise.
Colman is very good here, whether reciting poetry or holding back some kind of deluge of inner pain, and Ward is also quite sympathetic. Firth seems to be in a phase of playing repugnant characters (yes, we caught his repulsive turn in The Staircase), and it’s odd how little he needs to adjust his flustered acting style to turn from playing nice guy to complete a-hole.
But despite the film luring you in with Deakins’ exquisite visual eye, the schizophrenic script never really convinces you of the power of filmic storytelling.
The plaintive piano score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor opens up the film’s wistful mood from the start, and we know what Mendes is really touching upon: the death of cinema. “When I wrote the movie (during the pandemic), we were all worried about whether cinema was going to die,” the director says. Perhaps that’s why the film is included in Ayala Mall Cinemas’ A-List Series, highlighting this year’s “curation of films best viewed on the big screen.” (#KeepAmazingMoviesGoing, y’all.)
The only trouble with Empire of Light is that it focuses on one too many issues. Hillary’s mental condition and Stephen’s struggle against local racism are two very different thorny matters to raise in one movie that’s half-entranced by its own dreamy style. (Not to mention the cougar-cub dimension tossed into the mix but never stirred.) We know there will be landmines down the road. Too many landmines, actually. Better, perhaps, if Mendes had picked a lane to focus on one or two more satisfactorily.
Like the recent Babylon, Mendes’ film wants to suggest that the idea of cinema—sitting together with people in a dark room before flickering light—has healing, therapeutic powers. Which possibly is true. But despite the film luring you in with Deakins’ exquisite visual eye, the schizophrenic script never really convinces you of the power of filmic storytelling, so much as its purely visual appeal.
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Empire of Light opens at Ayala Mall Cinemas Feb .22