Director Sam Mendes’ ode to cinema forgets what makes a good film in the first place.
The ‘80s drama drowns in racial unrest, offers a wildly improbable romance and squeezes in a few valentines to the cinematic experience.
Tell that to Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, whose performances are so on point you sometimes forget what a mess Mendes made.
Colman stars as Hillary, the manager of a British movie house circa late 1980. The theater itself is a marvel, a magnificently appointed affair that’s been drummed out of existence in the 21st century, alas.
It’s still here in all its splendor, captured via cinematographer Roger Deakins, as good a craftsman as Hollywood has at the moment.
Hilary is a conscientious worker, but she’s stuck in a one-sided affair with her boss (Colin Firth in full despicable mode). Her days brighten when young Stephen (Ward) joins the team. He’s handsome and raw, his dreams of architectural glory dashed for the moment.
So he spends his days insulting customers and flirting with Hilary, who sadly has little personality or pep for the film’s first act. They strike up a romance anyway since what 20-something dreamboat wouldn’t want to woo a 40-something bore?
Plus, she’s white and Stephen is black, setting up awkward situations that reveal Mendes’ hand in unflattering ways.
Can these two souls find true love? Might we see more of Toby Jones, playing the projectionist whose love of cinema provides a stand-in for Mendes?
“Nothing happens without light,” Jones’ character muses in one of those Deep Thought moments that Mendes’ screenplay falls back on.
Will the writer/director squeeze even more cartoonishly loaded moments to remind us that racism existed in Britain during Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s reign?
(Yes, she’s name-checked as a source for the hatred).
It’s hard to know what “Empire of Light” wants to be. Is it a workplace drama with a splash of romance? A valentine to the theatrical experience, forever changed by the pandemic, streaming and digital demands?
Or is it another attack on The PatriarchyTM, witness Hilary’s meltdowns over her lot in life?
It’s never clear, except the Hilary/Stephen connection seems too anemic to power the film, and Mendes keeps reminding us that Racism Is Bad and Hilary is Good.
One sequence involved a roving gang of skinheads arrives out of nowhere and tries to coalesce the various plot threads. It only leads to one of what seems like a half-dozen possible endings, none as satisfying as needed.
*EXCLUSIVE* stills from Sam Mendes’ new film Empire of Light via @searchlightpics ✨ pic.twitter.com/wJVpQgDT4x
— Letterboxd (@letterboxd) December 2, 2022
We know Colman is a revelation every time she enters the frame, and she gives Hilary a depth the screenplay lacks. Ward does what we can with an underdeveloped role. For all the woke handwringing in the story, he never emerges as a flesh and blood character.
That’s on Mendes, not Ward.
“Light” features a few on-the-nose exchanges to tip its progressive hand. A character, noting the inequality he faces for his skin color, muses that even his children will someday suffer the same fate.
Mental illness plays heavily into the story, but once more a feature film brings up the vital issue only to treat it as a plot device.
The film’s devotion to cinema may be noble on the surface, but the film has a funny way of showing it. A key character doesn’t even watch movies, a tic that sounds wildly improbable. And Mendes can’t capture the joy of movies like he hopes to inspire.
Films like “Cinema Paradiso,” while imperfect and sentimental to a fault, leave us woozy with love for the theatrical experience.
“Empire of Light” tries so hard to make that happen, but whenever it gets close we’re thrown back into the pedestrian plot.
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There’s nothing wrong with films exploring race and gender discrimination. The culture has dramatically improved on both fronts, yet those problems stubbornly persist. It’s when characters from the past speak of them as if they were airlifted from 2022.
That’s the rub, and it renders the explorations inconsequential.
There’s also a demand for subtlety here. Had Stephen experienced a distrustful look here, an ignorant comment there, the themes would pop without an exclamation point.
Mendes prefers a heavy-handed approach, one way this mash note to movies loses its way.
HiT or Miss: “Empire of Light” starts as an ode to dying theatrical model but takes too many woke detours to deserve our attention.