We needn’t wonder what Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) was doing during the COVID lockdown: He was dreaming of going back to the movies with other people. Specifically, it appears that he worked on his first solo-scripted screenplay, Empire of Light, which is an ode to the movie palaces of yore. His resulting tribute to those “empires of light” is evocative and heartfelt. However, Mendes’ narrative about a lonely and troubled woman, and England’s contemporaneous political strife, that is folded into his nostalgic tribute is less effective and convincing.
The Empire is one of those golden-era movie palaces. It’s located on England’s southern coast and faces the town boardwalk and beach. The film opens at the end of 1980, and the films The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz are advertised on its marquee. Swooning camerawork by the inimitable Roger Deakins (a frequent Mendes collaborator) introduces us to the theatre and capacious ground-floor lobby as we observe Hilary (Colman), the duty manager, arriving, unlocking the theatre doors, and readying the venue for the day’s activities. Practiced and efficient, the middle-aged Hilary performs her tasks and then hangs in the break room with her young crew of ushers and other employees. Eventually, we come to learn that these workplace associates are her primary social contacts and friends. There’s also her boss Mr. Ellis (Firth), a married man who regularly calls Hilary into his office for clandestine hand jobs. And we also observe a visit to her doctor during which we ominously learn that he is prescribing her lithium for an undisclosed disorder. “Stable,” he says of her progress, “that’s good.”
Hilary gives a tour of the theatre to the Empire’s new young employee Stephen (Ward), and while showing him the ropes she takes him beyond the roped-off upper levels of the theatre where there exist two additional screens that are no longer used and a shuttered grand ballroom that has become a nesting ground for flocks of pigeons. Stephen is fascinated, and once he mends a pigeon’s broken wing, it’s not hard to imagine that he might be capable of doing the same for Hilary, metaphorically speaking. A sexual affair soon begins, although it’s hard to believe the depths of feeling that this unlikely pair – a twentysomething Black man and a solitary, middle-aged white woman – shares. By the time the protests of local skinheads and other racist bullies and Thatcherites violently spill over into the Empire’s lobby, it starts to feel like too many worlds have collided in one movie.
Despite these narrative pitfalls, Empire of Light has much to recommend it. It’s already well-established that Olivia Colman can do just about anything, and she is always a delight to watch as she undergoes this character’s highs and lows. Toby Jones is perfect as the theatre’s projectionist who waxes poetic about light’s magic. The music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sometimes threatens to overwhelm the drama, but well-chosen tracks by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Cat Stevens deftly complement the story. We may come to Empire of Light like moths to a flame but, ultimately, the film’s glow lacks incandescence.
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