‘Empire of Light’ – Sam Mendes’ Imperfect but Enthralling Love Letter to Cinema

One of the things which really excited me about “Empire of Light” is how it reunited director Sam Mendes with the God of all living cinematographers, Roger Deakins. Together, these two geniuses have given us visual wonders in “Revolutionary Road,” “Skyfall” and “1917.” And with “1917,” Deakins finally won his second Academy Award for Best Cinematography, so he and Mendes are a match made in cinematic heaven as far as I am concerned. As this movie itself, I had no idea what to expect, and that is just as well.

“Empire of Light” transports us back to the early 1980’s where we are taken to an English seaside town where a cinema is showing “The Blues Brothers” and “All That Jazz,” the latter which I still need to watch. We meet Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), one of the cinema’s managers who dutifully opens it up at the start of a new day and helps get everything ready for audience members eager to take in the latest feature presentation. But while she at first seems like a pleasant enough human being, we soon learn during a doctor’s appointment that she is taking lithium. It is not made entirely clear why she has been prescribed this form of medication, but it implies she has been through a wealth of emotional turmoil to where she needs some reigning in. But while the medication may be helping her, she admits to her doctor that she generally feels lifeless on a daily basis. And there’s also the cinema’s chief manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), who often invites her into his office to discuss professional matters which prove to be anything but professional.

And then we are introduced to the cinema’s newest employee, Stephen (Michael Ward), a young black man who has been applying to college with little success. Quickly, a relationship forms between him and Hilary as both feel a deep need for compassion which reality constantly denies them. But the times they are forced to live through constantly threatens to tear them apart in tragic ways, and their secrets may reveal more to the other than they can possibly ever hope to deal with.

The first thing I have to mention about “Empire of Light” is the performance of Olivia Colman. As always, she remains an acting dynamo as she takes Hilary from ecstatic highs to devastating lows as her character is forced to deal with a roller coaster of emotions she cannot easily control in the slightest. Every single moment she has onscreen is mesmerizing as she exhibits emotions not easily faked, and it makes Hilary’s journey from start to finish all the more emotionally extreme.

Then there is Michael Ward who portrays Stephen, the one who helps lift Hilary out of her mundane existence. Ward is wonderful in creating a character whose passion for things helps to make him all the more charismatic as he navigates through a time of cruel racism and missed opportunities which can easily bring anyone else down. He also makes the seemingly unlikely relationship between Stephen and Hilary all the more palpable as some may be quick to dismiss any possibility of something like this actually happening. What life has taught me is that anything is possible, so why shouldn’t this relationship be a distinct possibility?

And yes, there is Deakins’ cinematography which is as captivating as ever. While it may not be as orgasmic as the visuals he gave us in “Blade Runner 2049,” he succeeds in painting a lovely atmosphere of an English coastal town, the kind which ceased to exist decades ago, but whose history is still relevant in today’s world of Brexit and humanity going backwards. His work is also complimented beautifully by the wonderfully ambient film score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who stand in for Mendes’ regular musical collaborator, Thomas Newman.

When it comes to the screenplay by Mendes, however, it does try to cover more ground than it possibly can to where the focus gets lost from time to time. Part of me wanted to see more of the racism of the time explored more deeply as the script only seemed to touch the surface of it. The same goes with Hilary’s mental illness as it felt like I only learned so much about what she has been through. Perhaps this was by Mendes’ design as he wanted to keep us at a certain distance, but had we known more, perhaps this part of the movie would have been more profound as a result.

As for the love “Empire of Light” has for movies in general, it does make for one great scene involving Toby Jones who plays the cinema’s dedicated projectionist. Norman. Hearing Jones describe the intricacies of feeding film through the projectors makes for some of this movie’s most memorable and magical moments as it reminded me of the time I worked at a cinema in my youth. It also leads to a scene later on which reminded me of the climatic one in “Cinema Paradiso,” one of the greatest movies ever made about movies.

I do have to say that this film does threaten to have as many endings as “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Mendes must have been searching endlessly for the right way to conclude this particular film of his. Did he succeed? Well, I’ll leave it to you to find out. All I can say is that when you think the movie is over, it isn’t.

Despite its flaws which keep it from being the perfect Mendes motion picture which “American Beauty” and “Skyfall” are, I found “Empire of Light” to be very enthralling. It captures an interesting period of history, and its love of movies and film is deeply felt. And when all is said and done, it proves that Olivia Coleman is worth the price of admission no matter what she is appearing. Heck, my dad would pay her to read the phone to him just as he would with Tilda Swinton. I’m serious!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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