There are fleeting moments of brilliance in Sam Mendes’ latest film, Empire of Light, in particular those that allow its chief actors, Olivia Colman and Michael Ward, to show off their talents. The combination of wistfulness in Colman and aspiration in Ward is particularly strong, as both characters represent the same desires and insecurities we find in ourselves at different points in our lives. At its best, the movie allows the pair to carry the action as their respective roles operate at an existential crossroad.
The problem with the project as a whole, however, comes down to just about everything else. Depending on which part of the movie you’re watching at any given moment, you could be viewing a completely different film from a tonal and thematic standpoint. On an almost scene-to-scene basis, it feels like Mendes doesn’t know what kind of story he wants to tell, and he doesn’t stay on topic long enough for anything to have much weight to it. Like a case of cinematic ADHD, the plot isn’t so much unfocused as it is incapable of focus, leaving our stalwart leads to serve as constant anchors to bring the proceedings back to some semblance of order.
Set in 1981, the bulk of the action takes place at the Empire Theatre along the shore in Kent, England. A classic style cinema with curtains and balconies in each house, the place has fallen on hard times and feels like a relic. It is here that we find Olivia Colman wanking off Colin Firth. Okay, then. To be a bit clearer, Firth plays Donald Ellis, the general manager of the theatre, while Colman plays Hilary Small, the duty manager. In what is considered a very open secret, Ellis constantly calls Hilary away to his office for sexual favors, presumably a mutually-beneficial affair that still relies on an imbalance of workplace power to function, and which brings Hilary a degree of shame, especially when she sees Ellis in public with his wife (Sara Stewart). At best, her existence is fairly humdrum and at worst, it’s one of exploitation.
Things begin to look up with two exciting developments. For one, the Empire is chosen as the local site for the premiere of Chariots of Fire (1981’s Best Picture winner), which will surely bring some much-needed attention and prestige (and hopefully future business) to the old movie house. For another, a new worker is hired in the form of Stephen (Ward), a young go-getter who aspires to study architecture. After showing him the ropes, Hilary becomes interested in Stephen, and the two begin a romance that’s not quite May-December (more like April-August), which is again noticed by the rest of the staff, particularly shift manager Neil (Tom Brooke), despite their attempts at discretion.
Now, as I said, when it’s just Colman and Ward, this is pretty solid. The two have an unexpected chemistry and play off one another quite well. There’s no fetishization in their tryst, just two compatible people meeting each other at the right time, with circumstances playing out in just the right way for it to work. Yes, there’s the perception of something taboo given the age difference, the workplace dynamic, and race (Stephen is regularly harassed by skinheads), but for the two of them as people, they’re just enjoying what they have.
Unfortunately, as can happen, good turns to ill due to outside factors, in this case, Hilary’s mental health. Hinted at early in the film, she takes lithium to keep herself balanced, which can also lead to her acting detached at times. As her happiness with Stephen wears on, she goes off her meds, and her demons come out in force. When things come to a head, it’s a wonder how anything we previously saw could have been possible.
Now, this is all to Colman’s credit as an actress. She rolls with whatever punches Mendes’ script throws at her, and never once lets a moment go to waste. However, because the film can never pin itself down, it’s exceedingly difficult for Colman to maintain momentum. In the first half alone, the movie has shades of The Majestic, Working Girl, Harold and Maude, Fatal Attraction, Empire Records, Mary Poppins, Born Free, Love Story, and thanks to the pontification about the power of cinema from projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), Cinema Paradiso. When you’re constantly jumping from one reference and analog to the next, it’s all but impossible for even the best cast to keep up. By the time we got to the second act climax, and had introduced elements from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sunset Boulevard, and American History X, I got the firm impression that Mendes was just throwing anything at the screen he could think of to give off the illusion of insight.
This lack of narrative discipline extends to the other major production elements. I absolutely love the set design of the Empire, especially the disused areas that are like forgotten mirror images of the main theatre, as if the scenes filmed there were done as the primary set was either being built or torn down. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is expert as always, with a great deal of affection shown through the lens, for both the institution of film as well as those who work on its absolute bottom rung. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a tender, intimate score that speaks to the delicate nature of not just Hilary as a character, but of her surroundings, both literal (the theatre) and figurative (race and cultural relations in Margaret Thatcher’s UK).
These are all wonderful pieces that get dragged down by the whole because of the script’s utter lack of focus. Every time it diverts to some meaningless tangent, like Stephen’s love of ska music, mending a pigeon’s broken wing, or an argument with a rowdy customer (Ron Cook) who wants to bring in outside food, we in the audience are left to desperately wonder what the movie is supposed to actually be about. Is it about nostalgia for old theatres? Is it about mental illness? Is it about race? Is it about romance? Is it about exploitation? Is it about social unrest? Is it about a repeating cycle of history? Mendes doesn’t seem to know, or care, so we can’t know.
Apologies if this comes off as a spoiler (it’s not intended to be) but there’s a moment towards the end that pretty well sums up my frustration with what could have been an exercise in pure brilliance. Despite working at the Empire for so many years, Hilary has never actually gone in one of the auditoriums to see a film. As impossible as that idea sounds, there is a degree of believability in such an assertion, given the mostly passive, obedient nature of her character. However, when she finally decides to indulge herself, she tells Norman to show her whatever film he wants, just so she can experience one. That moment is a microcosm of why Empire of Light falls as short as it does. Mendes, like so many others this Awards Season, wants to make some kind of grandiose statement about the magic of movies, but only goes so far as to insist upon the idea of cinema as his entire case, as if its existence is self-justified, rather than effectively communicating why we should care.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think is Olivia Colman’s best performance? Do you yearn for a simpler time when you could pay for a movie with coins? Let me know!