Academy Award winner Olivia Colman manages the historic Empire Theatre during the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the newest film from Sam Mendes.
Ever since making his directorial feature debut with American Beauty in 1999, Sam Mendes has established himself as a craftsman of the highest order from the period dramas 1917 and Road To Perdition to the James Bond spy thrillers Skyfall and Spectre. However, the results are often uneven when he aims to make a more understated, small-scale movie such as Away We Go, and sadly his newest film, Empire of Light, is bafflingly so, thanks to a severely underwritten script devoid of a clear narrative focus and flat characters despite the strength of the film’s cast.
Empire of Light takes place in 1980s England just at the start of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as the British prime minister, during which social unrest ran rampant, and Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) manages the Empire Theatre on the coast by day, and does sexual favors for her boss, the theater’s owner Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), who very soon announces the Empire’s selection as the venue for the English premiere of Chariots of Fire with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance.
The stress that comes with preparing for this event reaches everyone on the staff, from projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and ushers Janine and Neil (Hannah Onslow and Tom Brooke, respectively), as well as new hire Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is the theater’s lone African American employee. Stephen catches the eye of Hilary, and the two have a friendship that appears to blossom into something more as they explore closed sections of their place of employment. But there seems to be more to Hilary than she’s letting on, leaving constant uncertainty over whether their burgeoning, if forbidden, romance can persist in the face of racial tensions, Hilary’s secrets and the pressures of their work with royalty on the way.
As aforementioned, the acting from the cast’s ensemble is stellar, with Olivia Colman serving as the film’s heart and center as she conveys Hilary’s internal melancholy with sad, pained facial nuances while exploding with an incendiary furor in moments where her struggles become too much to bear. Mendes’s shot compositions also isolate her in her empty apartment made warm by the colors of its walls, as if to propose her flat was once a place that brought happiness until loneliness took an internal toll on Hilary’s state of being.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography also does its job in making the Empire Theatre look lavish and grand in every frame, popping out the beautiful colors of its decór and the wondrous possibilities of the light elicited from Norman’s film projector. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have also composed a more understated, mellow score compared to their recent works, which aids in emphasizing the innocent intentions of Hilary and Stephen’s bond, and a hope for the Empire Theatre to return to greatness the two venture through an abandoned rooftop bar populated by pigeons during years of unuse.
It’s too bad that without a co-writer to reign Mendes in, his script is a rambling, incohesive mess that reeks of being written in a singular draft. The seeds of a sprawling period ensemble about the employees of a movie theater in high society are there, from the multitude of characters to the plethora of themes centered around events from the time period like race relations, the struggles of mental illness and the transportive power of cinema, but they’re all unfortunately strung along with a very pedestrian energy and have nothing to say about them other than the mere fact they’re as constant a fixture in our society now as they were back then with nothing substantial attached to it.
What’s also worth noting is that Empire of Light fumbles the bag on portraying the conflict that should arise with its main relationship. There’s a moment where Hilary gives Stephen a particular display of affection for him despite their decades-wide age gap, only to run away in shame. Stephen insists she did nothing wrong, but instead of delving further into justifying or condemning her behavior, the film cuts to a montage of the two lovers at an amusement park as if nothing’s wrong. It’s confounding and infuriating, as are the facts that her other co-workers have the bare bones that come with one-dimensional personalities, as well as the 180 degree turn that comes from left field when a certain discovery is made about Hilary’s character.
Empire of Light tries so hard to be a grandiose, sprawling character study that celebrates the magic of cinema and the theaters that house it, but falls flat on its face at every turn. For a director who’s become a master of spectacle, Sam Mendes barely does anything monumental or visceral to ride home about upon the conclusion of his latest film. In the recent trend of cinematic love letters from an auteur to their hometown, this stands out as one of the most disappointing, because instead of having something resonant or powerful to say, the mess that is Empire of Light sadly leaves viewers lost in the dark.