For what has to be one of the most disappointing movies I have seen this year, Empire of Light tries hard to blend a concoction of racial tensions, mental health trauma, and pure love for cinema. Unfortunately, despite having a series of isolated moments that would probably look great on an Academy Awards reel, it still comes up short. Writer/director Sam Mendes (1917, Skyfall, American Beauty) has remarkable vision, buoyed by the stunning prowess of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Even more spectacular here is the acting from Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite, Heartstopper) and her screen partner, Micheal Ward (Beauty, The Old Guard). Why then is the film so littered with issues?
Empire Cinema is fading fast, a shadow of what it once was. Yet, there are still faithful guests that come each day, whether to catch a screening of The Blues Brothers or Smokey and the Bandit. Hilary (Colman), duty manager of the cinema, tries her hardest to put on a smile and greet each patron as if a member of her family. Reigning over Hilary is the big boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The King’s Speech), who is constantly calling on Hilary to come to his office where she secretly jerks him off at his convenience. Dashing young new black employee Stephen (Ward) is trained by Hilary as he adjusts to work at the cinema. In a better film, Stephen would act as our central character, a window into this world, and to the magic of cinema.
Instead, the “power of cinema” angle here is presented through projectionist Norman (Toby Jones, The Hunger Games, The Mist), a character whose role is so minimal that he may as well not even exist at all. As a bizarre flirtation occurs between Stephen and Hilary, Stephen too becomes enamored with how projection and film reels work. These two items do not run adjacent though—Norman’s friendship with Stephen is a total late-in-the-game afterthought, while the Stephen and Hilary relationship is central to the “story.” I use the term story very loosely here, mainly because the script from Mendes is so scattered that it may as well have been divided into vignettes. The central romance is questionable at best, and one cannot help thinking that if the genders were reversed, people would really be up in arms.
Empire Cinema’s crew prepares for an exciting upcoming movie premiere of Chariots of Fire with cast and the mayor in attendance—a signature event that could put them back on the map. As the film progresses, Stephen and Hilary’s friendship takes many bizarre left turns. Schizophrenia comes into play, as does the concept of surviving as a man of color in England under 1980s Thatcher rule. Some intimate moments between the two work well, and one under fireworks is stunning to behold thanks to Deakins’s cinematography. Their connection over a fallen bird feels special. More often than not though, this couple is just mismatched. They seem to know what they are doing is wrong, and it begins to have a negative effect on Hilary’s work performance too. Both are good separately as characters, but in tandem, their clashing stories don’t make a whole lot of sense.
I have managed at a movie theater for over a decade now, so if any film would be very much my jam, it should have been this one. An incident that occurs over outside food and drink reminded me of the entitlement I have to deal with on a daily basis in holding fast to this archaic rule. The monotony of ushering duties and scooping popcorn is also pretty accurately depicted. Mostly though, the theater setting is just a backdrop. Empire of Light fails to do anything even remotely exciting with its premise. Without Colman and Ward at the center, it would verge on unwatchable. An endless series of scenes well into the runtime really wears on one’s patience, as I honestly felt the movie could have ended at least five or six times before it actually did. I struggled to figure out why Sam Mendes felt Empire of Light was worthy of the big screen treatment when his previous film 1917 was such a bonafide masterpiece.
Queue up to see the Empire of Light when it comes to theaters on Friday, December 9th.