Empire of Light (LFF Review) – A Sweet, If Unfocused, Ode To The Cinema

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Monica Dolan, Sara Stewart, Ron Cook, Justin Edwards

RUNNING TIME: 119 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15 TBC

BASICALLY…: In a 1980s coastal town, romance and more blossoms at a local cinema…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of Empire of Light was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

Movies about making movies are not uncommon, but ones about the cinema experience itself are surprisingly rare. Other than the obvious example Cinema Paradiso, can you seriously name the last time that a prolific film really highlighted the importance of going to your local picture house, purchasing the popcorn and sweets in the lobby, and then sitting down to enjoy a projected series of images on a giant screen? This is where Empire of Light, from director and first-time solo writer Sam Mendes, comes in to give contemporary audiences a new option, and the result is a rather sweet and comforting, if not completely profound, love letter to the power of not just movies, but the venues in which they are shown all year round.

Set in the early 1980s, we follow a lonely woman named Hilary (Olivia Colman), one of a handful of employees at the two-screen Empire Cinema in the seaside town of Margate. At work, Hilary and her fellow custodians tend to their various duties, such as administering ticket stubs and tidying up the rows of spilled food and drink along the aisles (and, in Hilary’s case, the unfortunate addition of sexually pleasuring the cinema’s sleazy manager, played by Colin Firth), all while current hits like The Blues Brothers and 9 to 5 play through the projectors. One day, a new addition to the team is introduced: he is Stephen (Micheal Ward), a charming young lad who quickly catches Hilary’s attention, and the two eventually ignite a passionate affair with one another. However, several unfortunate circumstances – from brutal racism directed at Stephen, to Hilary’s underlying mental illness – begin to hinder their complicated relationship.

They also, unfortunately, hinder a lot of the storytelling. As mentioned, this is also Mendes’ first sole writing credit (he previously co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, both of whom nabbed an Oscar nomination for their work on that film together), and the filmmaker sometimes struggles with finding the right balance of tone and pathos in his screenplay. His is a script that certainly has a lot on its mind, taking into account some of the dark historical events that are happening in the background (the Brixton riots are briefly mentioned, and the skinhead movement forms a part of a major sequence late in the film), but Mendes often tries to do too much all at once, leaving parts either undercooked in service of other, less vital parts of the story, or focused on too much as to where you’re uncertain if that is what the film as a whole is now about. Its handling of mental illness can also feel randomly inserted into the romance plot, because there will be some very tender scenes between Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, and then all of a sudden she will begin thrashing about and destroying sandcastles at the drop of a hat. Things like that can happen out of nowhere, and it can be a little jarring when you’re just trying to figure out how, in the midst of all these interesting but half-baked ideas, there is also supposed to be an ode to the cinematic experience.

Luckily, when it is just simply focusing on what makes cinema itself so profound to these characters and this community, Empire of Light truly shines. While his skills as a screenwriter certainly need more development, there’s no doubt that he is a fantastic filmmaker, and along with regular cinematographer Roger Deakins he creates a truly gorgeous visual spectacle that puts this fabulously designed art-deco building to profound use. You do feel the love and admiration for places like this in every single shot, and when characters are simply checking tickets or filling up popcorn buckets or just chilling out in their communal areas, there is passion and a half in each little infliction that gives a nice little tingle all over your body. It is made all the more likeable by Toby Jones’ projectionist character, who is gifted with monologues that go into why the magic of movies is such a vital part of everyday life, which can seem corny at times but they are written so earnestly, and performed just as authentically, that you do feel its presence even when we are well outside the cinema’s boundary. The romantic elements of this movie work well too, for Colman and Ward share a sweet and tender chemistry that does allow you to buy why these two people would care for and respect one another, even if their pairing can, like most other things in this movie, happen rather suddenly. Colman, of course, knocks it out of the park once more with a deeply complex turn as this very troubled woman, and Ward has a nice charm and energy to him where you do really enjoy him as a leading man, let alone a romantic lead in a movie like this. Again, though, it’s a shame that Mendes feels the need to start focusing on different things all at once, to where the central romance becomes a mere afterthought not too long after it even begins.

What the movie needs most is focus: there’s nothing wrong with tackling themes like racism and mental illness in your movie, but there also needs to be something else that naturally connects them, and because there isn’t a whole lot of attention placed on the actual power of cinema until a bit later on in the movie, it feels unbalanced and all over the place as a result. The elements for a truly grand movie are there – it is very well-made (with the addition of a lovely score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, filling in for Mendes’ regular composer Thomas Newman), has likeable characters, and it harbours great passionate about its core love of cinema – but perhaps at least one or two more rewrites would have tightened up its more sporadic features to turn Empire of Light into the real celebration of cinema that it is very, very close to being.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Empire of Light is a sweet but flawed ode to the cinema experience, which works best when it focuses on what makes the big screen such a vital part of everyday life and community, and offers a nice romance that features some strong and likeable turns by Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, but director Sam Mendes’ script lacks the focus to tie it all together, often moving from one overarching topic to the next without much consistency or even the time to truly get into what he wants to discuss, beyond why cinema is so great.

Empire of Light will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 13th January 2023.

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