Telluride: Olivia Colman and singer Michelle Ward star in a May-December romance that struggles to capture the magic of cinema.
Although set in the early 1980s (her story spanned from “The Blues Brothers” to “Being There”), Sam Mendes‘Dispersed and dying’The Empire of LightIt is a film born of two simultaneous but unequal novels that erupted in the summer of 2020: the Black Lives Matter movement and the existential threat to the future of cinemas. Looking at those phenomena through the lens (not particularly nostalgia) of his teenage years in England, there is no such thing as society. – A time when racism and cinema were flourishing in popular culture – Mendes seeks to tell a sad but poignant short story about the simple power of society.
It is a magical story where light and darkness intertwine together to create magic, and where people can enjoy the pleasure of being surrounded by strangers without fear of being watched. As Nicole Kidman might say, “Even Margaret Thatcher feels good in a place like this.” Merciful Because “Empire of Light” doesn’t come close to suggesting that the AMC might be our secret weapon in the fight against white nationalism, Mendes’ backward vision of the modern world is still too clumsy and accommodating to offer any heartbreaking insights. all by herself. All she managed to leave us with was a great performance from Micheal Ward, a sparkling new score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and a gorgeous clip of Olivia Colman screaming “Fuck, or no sex, that’s the question!” The Chariots of Fire music rings behind her in the background.
Less an ode to movies than an ode to movie theaters—less than “Cinema Paradiso” from Annie Baker’s play “The Flick”—Empire of Light eschews the stark, autobiographical flavor that has prevailed during the recent wave of “personal stories” from major filmmakers. That doesn’t explain why this contribution to this Oscar-friendly subgenre lacks the on-screen vulnerability that the likes of Belfast and Bardot have reinforced, but Mendes’ decision not to create this movie about standing up for himself becomes a fitting expression of our inability on seeing it.
The story that Mendes chooses to tell with the first script he wrote from scratch on his own is a romance in May and December about two employees at Cinema Margate – the Empire – along the north shore of Kent. Hilary Small (Coleman) is a lonely middle-aged woman who seems to have worked there for some time; Or perhaps the pessimistic photo-house owner (Colin Firth as Mr. Ellis) made her the manager just so he had an excuse to invite her into his office and demand less fervent hand-sex. Hillary doesn’t resist sexual harassment for the same reason she’s not resisting anything else: The lithium she got after being released from mental hospital has left her drugged to the world.
New employee Stephen (Ward) hastily fixes it. A handsome young man and capable of being a brilliant architect if he was not rejected by the graduate schools he applied to because of the color of his skin, Stephen is a bottle full of unspent enthusiasm, and his smile alone is enough to bring Hillary back to life. She can’t imagine he’d ever get his feelings back, and Mendes’ text never explains why he’d do it.
The age gap between these characters requires no comment of disbelief, but no attempt is made to explain what Stephen directs toward a co-worker who is sad and severe even in comic scenes intended to create mutual attraction (they find a bird) on the upper floors of an enclosed cinema and bind her broken wing each other). Their first kiss comes a few hours after Hilary flirts with Stephen for cruelly taunting a client behind their backs.
This ultimately means that co-workers associate a common sense of shame, each being belittled in their own way, but Mendes draws his excellent lead actors to understand the straw provided by his unfinished text. Even the most tender moments between them fade through the disturbing broad displays of mental illness and/or the uneasy illustrations of the racist attitudes behind Stephen and Hillary’s brief relationship. The first episode is false despite the perceived volatility of Coleman’s anger, while the second—which is crafted in the context of the Brixton riots and the emergence of the National Front—is seen exclusively through the eyes of a world-numbing, oblivious white woman like herself. Even in 1981, the scene where Hilary buys a two-tone album for Stephen because “black kids and white kids coming together makes everything normal” was going to land like a lead balloon.
The only charismatic character in “Empire of Light” is the Empire itself, which Mendes’ production team recreated from the remnants of his memory with palpable love and extreme attention to detail. While we’re finally only watching a segment of a movie from inside one of the stately theater halls (a sadistic blocking act meant to reflect Hillary’s disinterest in what’s going on at her workplace), the Empire’s lobby is like a time machine.
The magic begins at the brilliantly lit pavilion outside and continues down to the concession stand and along the velvet red carpets before culminating in the show booth where an unruly man named Norman (the always trusted Toby Jones) operates the gigantic pieces of machinery that bring dreams to life. Roger Dickens’ camera may have become unfamiliar with such everyday scenes, but it commands the same attention on the back rooms and large screens of this movie mansion as if Hilary and Stephen were James Bonds or Blade Runners.
Finally, Empire seems like an excellent place to see a movie, especially if it’s not that movie. The most entertaining subplot amid this highly distracted story involves Mr. Ellis’ Dwight Schrute-like effort to deliver the “regional premiere” of Chariots of Fire, a disturbing scene that concludes with a bit of a wig in a film that struggles to produce any other genre.
The Empire of Light advances in awkward fits and impressions, sometimes threatening to bind together into something greater than its parts before finally collapsing under its own weight at the exact moment when the real world rushes into the sacred realm of cinema. Mendes struggles to visualize how one could exist within the other, which may help explain why his best films (“Road to Perdition” and “Skyfall”) are so high and eager to leave reality behind. “Empire of Light” may consider itself an ode to society, but it only feels true when celebrating movies because of its escape from reality. How strange it is to say that when we finally see someone watching a movie in the Empire, they watch it alone.
It’s great that Mendes spent the pandemic making a film about the irreplaceable vitality of movie theaters — even if he went so far as to paint them as one of the final chords in what remains of our social fabric. It would have been better if he spent the pandemic making a movie worth seeing in one movie.
Empire of Light premiered in 2022 telluride Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will show it in theaters Friday, December 9.