In “Empire of Light,” Sam Mendes casts a sentimental eye towards the movies. Like several other auteurs this winter, Mendes has crafted what might be considered a “love letter to movie theater” (see likewise: Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon”), but “Empire of Light” is less of a mash note to moviemaking than a homage to the theater itself, that cathedral of collective dreams born by a single beam.
The Empire in concern is the imaginary Empire Movie theater in Margate, a seaside city in England, the year is 1980, and the story concerns the not likely, and complicated, friendship between Hilary (Olivia Colman), the duty manager at the Empire, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), the brand-new ticket taker. Films are their business, and the backdrop to their relationship, which flowers amongst the popcorn and sweet, and flies in the Empire’s abandoned upstairs club room, an as soon as marvelous area now working as a pigeon roost.
“Empire of Light” is shot magnificently by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who contrasts the blueish beach exterior light with the warm, rich interior of the Empire equipped in golds and reds, the staff dressed in aubergine. It is a strikingly gorgeous film, simultaneously airy and earthy, the proud, yet collapsing glamour of the Empire putting us in this moment in time.
Funnily enough, “Empire of Light” shares some story DNA with another workplace motion picture that occurs at an “Empire”: “Empire Records,” that mid-’90s romp about a group of misfit teenagers working at a record shop. Both films happen at a company dedicated to physical media where fans concern praise their art form of option, and where the employees form an oddball family, contending with their different individual issues. In “Records,” a corporate takeover threatens obsolescence, and though that hasn’t rather arrived yet in “Light,” it’s clear Mendes, setting the movie 4 decades back, is considering the possible extinction of the movie theater in his own method.
As to the staff member concerns, Mendes, composing alone for the first time (he previously co-wrote “1917”), saddles Hilary and Stephen with some heavy-duty individual obstacles that show the social plagues of the time. Hilary contends with a continuous psychological health crisis coming from gender-based injury (see the “woman = problem man” graffiti on the walls of her squalid apartment or condo), while Stephen, the boy of Caribbean immigrants, has to take on the burden of racism building in Thatcher’s England, where skinheads are pushed to attack. At one point, he despairingly notes a spate of racist incidents to Hillary after an unsightly encounter with an aggressive patron. It feels less like a sensible line of discussion and more like Mendes trying to set the context.
The story seems like a mashing together of these social ills with various referrals to influential movies of the period (“Stir Crazy,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Raging Bull”) music (The English Beat, Joni Mitchell, Feline Stevens), and a few preferred poets (W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin), while the cinema setting provides the opportunity to wax poetically about the magic of forecasted celluloid (Toby Jones plays the smart projectionist Norman). But Mendes ends up making the somewhat misdirected, and flat, argument that motion pictures can deal with mental disorder, and ska music can fight bigotry.
As movie fans and appreciators of the experience that is 35mm predicted in a lovely old cinema, it’s simple to understand where Mendes is originating from, and to concur with his assertions. But as a movie fan wanting to fall in love with a story, “Empire of Light” does not supply that experience. Deakins’ work is gorgeous, Colman is incredible, and the function of Stephen shows to be a breakout for Ward. But the story is just too scattershot and contrived to be swept away and moved in the very same way that Colman discovers herself swept away by the experience of the Peter Sellers’ traditional “Existing.”
We do not need someone to remind us that movies are magic by mentioning that up front, usually it’s simply the magic of storytelling itself that accomplishes that, which “Empire of Light” ultimately, and sadly, fumbles.