Sam Mendes’s new film “Empire of Light” is rather indecisive and muddled in its sincere love letter to movie theaters. On one hand, it attempts to emphasize the wonder of cinema, but nothing much sticks on the wall even though a bunch of movies pop around here and there throughout the film. On the other hand, it also tries to present a sensitive character drama coupled with one unlikely romance, but it often does not work due to occasional glaring plot contrivance, and we only come to observe it from the distance without much emotional involvement.
The story, which is set in 1980, mainly revolves around Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a plain middle-aged single woman who works in a big old movie theater located on the north coast of Kent, England. As shown from the opening part of the film, her daily life is monotonously melancholic without much joy or excitement, and she does not even care that much about watching movies unlike her fellow employees.
On one day, there comes a new employee, a handsome black lad named Stephen (Micheal Ward). Although their first day is not exactly pleasant, Hilary comes to befriend Stephen as she shows him some abandoned spaces at the upstairs of the theaters, and she cannot help but drawn more to him while getting to know him more. When they happen to be together on the rooftop of the theater right before another year begins, she eventually comes closer to Stephen, and she naturally feels embarrassed, but it turns out that Stephen also feels attracted to her.
After that, Hilary and Stephen come to meet each other more without revealing their relationship to anyone in the theater. Feeling a lot happier than usual, Hilary decides to end her joyless sexual relationship with her married boss, who is not so pleased about that to say the least. In case of Stephen, he comes to show more of himself during their private meetings, and Hilary is touched by how much he has tried for a better future for himself.
In addition, Hilary becomes more aware of what Stephen has to struggle with day by day due to his race. At one point, she happens to witness him harassed by several skinhead thugs, and then she comes to learn more about his disadvantaged social status as a black man. She wants to bring more comfort and consolation to him, and he does not mind that at all because, well, he really loves and cares about her.
However, the story suddenly changes its direction when Hilary turns out to have a very serious mental problem behind her back, and that is where the movie stumbles more than once. It is rather distracting to see its heroine going up and down as demanded by the plot, and that reminds me of what critic Pauline Kael once wrote: “Explaining madness is the most limiting and generally least convincing thing a movie can do.”
Olivia Colman, who has been one of the most interesting actresses of our time especially since her stellar Oscar-winning turn in “The Favourite” (2018), is reliable as usual, but even the steady handling of her character is often hindered by Mendes’ flawed screenplay. While she does a good job of filling her character with enough sense of life and personality, her good efforts are frequently stretched to the extremes during the second half of the film. In case of one key scene involved with the screening of “Chariots of Fire” (1981), it is supposed to be a dramatic highpoint, but it is merely embarrassing to watch instead, and her character comes to feel more like a case study instead of someone we can care about.
On the opposite, Micheal Ward, a promising actor who was electrifying in his breakout turn in “Blue Story” (2018), is limited a lot by his rather superficial character, and that is a nearly fatal weakness in the story. Although Ward clicks well with Colman during several intimate scenes between their characters, his character feels more like a plot element even when the movie comes to focus more on him later in the story. We observe a bit of Stephen’s private life via his nurse mother and his ex-girlfriend, but he is mostly defined by the racial prejudices against him, and this aspect becomes more blatant via another contrived moment in the film.
In case of the theater in the movie, it surely looks fabulous thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who recently received an Oscar nomination for this film. With all those numerous posters and photographs on the walls of the projection booth, the movie surely evokes some nostalgia from us, but that is all we can get, and the following scene involved with the little private screening of “Being There” (1979) feels clumsy and manipulative in my trivial opinion.
Overall, “Empire of Light” is a big disappointment from Mendes, who has seldom bored me since his Oscar-winning debut film “American Beauty” (2000). It is nice to see him trying something more modest compared to his recent previous works such as “Skyfall” (2012) and “1917” (2019), but the result is underwhelming to say the least, and I was left with lots of hollow impression in the end. Sure, it is always fun and entertaining for me to go to movie theater, but, folks, the movie somehow fails to remind me of that.
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