From its opening scene, Empire of Light is a movie that any cinephile will want to like. We follow Olivia Colman’s Hilary into a gloriously nostalgic cineplex. The sequence is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins with another Oscar-worthy musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It ranks alongside Nicole Kidman’s AMC ad as one of the most enticing endorsements for the cinematic experience. Empire of Light strives to be a love letter to cinema, but it also tries to be more. The film attempts to tackle challenging subjects like racism and mental health, which writer/director Sam Mendes doesn’t seem like the best-equipped person to address. Mendes is an immensely talented filmmaker, but he’s out of his element in a film that bites off more than it can chew.
Taking place in the 80s, the film follows Hilary’s lonely life as a movie theater employee. Her co-workers include Toby Jones as the projectionist and Colin Firth as Hilary’s slimy boss, who she’s of course having an affair with. Micheal Ward plays Stephen, a new employee who develops a friendly rapport with Hilary. The friendship evolves into a romance, which leads to Empire of Light’s first problem. Hilary and Michael have no chemistry. This isn’t due to the age difference. If Good Luck to You, Leo Grande proved anything earlier this year, it’s that a significant age gap can create an intriguing dynamic. Hilary and Michael’s romance lacks any consistency, however.
When the two first kiss atop the theater against a New Year’s backdrop, Hilary pulls away and storms off in embarrassment. In the next scene, Hilary and Michael are frolicking at Coney Island with another co-worker. Is a scene missing? When did they reconcile? There’s another moment where the couple is building a sand castle at the beach (as all adult lovers do?) when Hilary suddenly grows hostile. For whatever reason, Michael still finds himself drawn to Hilary, although we never understand what he sees in her. Apparently, it’s because both are social outcasts, albeit for very different reasons. It’s eventually revealed that Hilary’s behavior is rooted in mental illness. Even with this revelation, Michael is patient to the point of being unrealistically perfect.
All the while, the film’s salute to cinema gets lost in the shuffle. Hilary says that she never watches movies, which is a missed opportunity. Wouldn’t it have been more thematic if the films playing at the theater reflected the characters’ struggles? This would’ve provided a clever parallel demonstrating how movies provide escapism while also helping us to understand the world. When Hilary finally sits down for a screening of Being There, it’s another magically shot sequence. However, it adds little to the plot and comes out of nowhere. Speaking of random, the film shoehorns in a race riot that’s relevant and intense, but it ultimately comes off as manipulative.
It’s been 23 years since Sam Mendes directed American Beauty, another film that explored many timely, difficult issues. You believed every character in that suburban drama could exist, though. The characters in Empire of Light are more like cardboard cutouts, akin to the ones you’d find in a movie theater lobby. American Beauty also had a sense of humor about itself while Empire of Light is as self-important as awards season movies get. The performers do what they can with the material. Ward, in particular, is a star to watch out for. Alas, they can’t elevate Mendes’ screenplay, which wants to be so many things: a celebration of cinema, a bittersweet love story, a commentary on social unrest. If Mendes picked one of these things, we might’ve gotten a movie worthy of the talent involved. Instead, the film gets lost in the darkness, never quite finding the light.