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‘Empire of Light’ review: Heartbreak feels cold in a place like this

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Blues Brothers is playing on Screen 7. The halogen lights illuminate the winsome, amber-smeared walls. The resplendent theater stirs once more as the popcorn sits and the candy beckons. This house of dream’s primary acolyte, a melancholic, forceful woman, is preparing this hallowed space for the devotees, who come to be bewitched by its splendor. These are tranquil images that open a film concerned with the graceful importance of the cinema as a center for community and art. And yet, the power of the theatrical experience has rarely felt as soporific as in writer/director Sam Mendes’ indelicate hands in Empire of Light, a contrived, politically trite exercise.

Set in 1980, the filmmaker positions the cinema as a magical, fantastical place where misfits go to hide. The duty manager of Empire of Light, the titular resplendent movie palace, is Hilary Small (Olivia Colman). As she works at the theater day and night with nary a day off, her cheery countenance hides the deep fissures in her mental health. There are others there, a lightly sketched cadre of oddballs, including an idiosyncratic projectionist played by Toby Jones and a philandering manager portrayed with greasy gusto by Colin Firth. Dampened by her daily lithium medication, Hilary merely drifts through this milieu rather than feeling the community it offers. That is, until a new, dashing employee named Stephen (Micheal Ward), who would be studying architecture if he could afford to go to a four-year institution, arrives at the theater. 

Empire of Light is derailed by its core romance. 

Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward celebrate a birthday at work in “Empire of Light.”
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

From the opening nostalgic images of vested movie theater halls to the cozy seaside setting provided for this palace of electric scenes, it’s difficult to precisely pinpoint where Empire of Light flies off the tracks. Maybe the disconnect occurs when we learn that though Hilary dedicates her life to this cinema, she doesn’t actually watch movies there… or ever. Or maybe the disjointedness arises from the incuriosity by Mendes about the goings-on of the theater or the emotional connection any of these characters have to this building in particular. Either way, the Empire becomes more a gesture than an enveloping setting. While those issues do elicit annoyance, they don’t necessarily break the film. 

The clearest break from the spell that Mendes tries to cast actually occurs with a kiss. In an homage to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Stephen and Hilary fall madly in love with each other. Unlike Fassbinder’s star-crossed romantic masterpiece, which refreshingly centered an older woman as an object of desire, Empire of Light doesn’t make its pairing believable. 

We can understand why Hilary would be attracted to the cool yet innocent Stephen. He is charming, empathetic, and a passionate purveyor of contemporary pop culture in a way that classic folk and poetry fan Hilary is not. But Mendes doesn’t put in the work to make Stephen’s infatuation with Hilary plausible. Part of this stems from what little they have in common. The film positions them as kindred spirits, both ostracized by the world: Hilary due to her mental health, and Stephen because he’s a Black man facing a violent, bigoted era in Britain’s history. We also learn by virtue of Stephen’s mother (a criminally sidelined Tanya Moodie) that he carries a slight savior complex. 

Those characteristics are not enough to define this unlikely couple’s bond. The problem is partly in the kiss. It occurs too early in the film, before we become comfortable with the two people as individuals, and before they become comfortable with each other. Instead, the only preamble to their romance is Stephen mending a hurt pigeon and a severe Hilary yelling at Stephen for mocking a theater patron. 

Empire of Light others Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward. 

Micheal Ward shines in “Empire of Light.”
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Onscreen chemistry is always difficult to measure, more dependent upon the actors and our connection to their personas than we care to admit. Still, Colman and Ward, two tremendously talented performers, capture as much spark as damp wood. 

The sensuality and passion that overwhelms the frame in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul sputters here. Empire of Light‘s Director of Photography Roger Deakins, the best in his field, allows the lens to be surprisingly distant and too subtle in the film’s primary sex scene. Physically, Colman and Ward are equally awkward throughout the picture. Their generosity as scene partners translates to friendship, but never into the charged, magnetic cadence required to bask us in their love.    

Neither character works as a thematic totem either, probably because Mendes can’t help but veer toward big, melodramatic events, rather than gripping viewers in the kind of mundanities that would build sturdier interpersonal dynamics. The director can’t fully explicate the racist pain Stephen feels without succumbing to this kid being viciously assaulted by a National Front mob. He can’t contextualize Hilary’s mental health struggles without, in spite of Colman’s best efforts, othering her as a curiosity, whose primary ailment stems from her heretical detachment from movies. Colman played a somewhat similar role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, a narrative propelled by a humanity and empathy for a character that is sorely lacking here. Instead, Mendes pities Hilary. 

That dearth of emotional truth doesn’t just lie in Mendes’ inert script, the first he’s written on his own. It haunts the crafts too. The lighting of Ward, the film’s primary Black character, is better here than, say, in James Gray’s Armageddon Time, where a Black kid is rendered negligible in the film’s dim, othering lighting. You can actually see Ward’s features in Empire of Light, but the lighting is rarely flattering. Compare how director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner shot Ward in Lovers Rock, and you can see the glaring difference between luminescence and ashen. 

Being There isn’t enough.

Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward enjoy a moment in a movie theater in “Empire of Light.”
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

The theater itself also suffers, but because of Mendes’ nostalgia. He and his cohorts recreated the cinema of his childhood. But their precise production design feels almost too immaculate, too engineered to match the magical space in the filmmaker’s mind rather than the tactileness that truly makes a theater a lived-in space. The effect is instead a stilted atmosphere. And even with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ enchanting, wistful score, meant to evoke the once-held grandeur of this space, the kinetic majesty of the building never fully bursts forth. 

It’s no wonder Mendes feels compelled to grift off the emotional power of another, greater movie. In Empire of Light’s climactic scene, Hilary finally takes in a picture at the theater. It’s Hal Ashby’s Being There. But Mendes doesn’t merely use the classic film as a passing reference. He leans on Ashby’s full-hearted vision to imbue his own picture with the kind of otherworldly mystique that can occur in a theater’s escapist mix of light and shadow. The scene, however, illuminates the director’s own shortcomings in providing us with a movie worthy of such an exalted reference point. Empire of Light instead confounds and frustrates, simplifies and flattens, bores on and on, as it reduces the racial and political realities of its world and ours into a glib postcard.

Empire of Light in theaters Dec. 9.

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