The art of cinema brings us together in powerful, unexpected ways. The flickering light from the projection booth, the concessions, the communal nature of an audience sharing a laugh, a cry, a smile, a shriek. It is a beacon, and if I’m overly waxing poetic about its power, cinema also shapes us as we shape it. Our experiences and today our expectations drive what cinema has become. Like ships passing through a foggy harbor, cinema is a beacon of hope, of light – at least, that is what Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” tries to convey.
Set in a British coastal town, the Empire Theatre is home to many things, most notably Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), the night manager for the theater. Hilary is by-the-book and sees that the theater is manned and ready for its nightly showings. The time is the 1980s, and owner Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth) wants to make the Empire home for a splashy UK premiere. He also has other things going in his mind, which Hilary adroitly fulfills; even if she’s not satisfied, he is. And that’s all that matters until Micheal Ward’s Stephen comes along.
In “Empire of Light,” Mendes, who also wrote the script, gets his ideology about the power of cinema right. He struggles with giving us something more than what’s on the screen. We are not fully immersed in Hilary’s journey or her budding romance with Stephen. Reflecting on the film, these are overt decisions, making the characters and story feel static. Even when moments of brilliance come alive, the journey feels intentionally uneven. It’s as if the characters don’t fully come alive or pop. Owed to romance and the time “Empire of Light” is set in – the population is rebelling, and attacks against staff happen more than once. Bigotry reveals its ugly hand, especially where Stephen is concerned.
There is consistency within that flatness, something Mendes is known and appreciated for. Here it works against him. The story builds its arc slowly, and each secondary character has little to do except be props within Hilary’s sphere. In a recent Variety article, Mendes intended the story as a reflection of his mom’s struggles with mental illness, raising Mendes and his siblings. Put into that light, the way the story unfolds and its flat feeling is understandable and relatable.
Despite the flat nature of the film, Colman stands out. Her character arc as Hilary is fully fledged as she struggles to find her place. It could be easy to compare her character to Salvatore from Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso.” Ultimately, Hilary and Salvatore search for meaning in life, a foundation. The difference is that, in Hilary’s case, she suffers from a mental affliction. The audience experiences several of her breakdowns, a credit to Colman’s performance but also a credit to Roger Deakins’ ace cinematography.
Mendes and Deakins focus on visual cues to guide us through “Empire of Light.” Between the theater’s age and condition, the film’s centerpiece, and Hilary’s breakdowns, Deakins delivers the most substantial aspect of “Empire of Light.” He captures the intimacy of film going, of the behind-the-scenes goings on with staff and Mr. Ellis, and the expansiveness of the sea beyond the glass doors of Empire’s façade. Most importantly, he captures Hilary’s struggles, coming to terms with her affliction. The sequence between Ward and Toby Jones’ Norman, the projectionist, is most appreciated, though. Jones adds warmth, especially for someone who is isolated in a single room in the theater. Yet, he has the most important job in the whole place – projecting the images flickering on the screen. Out of anyone, Norman probably is the most nuanced out of all the characters inhabiting the Empire.
Ward’s performance, the first time I’ve seen him on screen, lends an air of understanding. Mendes does bridge Stephen’s plight with Hilary’s through the power of film, and when Hilary manages a theater but has not sat down to watch a film and does so for the first time, the movie comes alive – the power of art works its magic. They are better people for having this shared experience.
“Empire of Light” exists on several planes of existence. It is hard to deny the power behind the cinema, the crumbling façade standing in for Hilary’s plight, and the connectedness she feels for Stephen. Sam Mendes tells one of his most personal stories. The flatness of the storytelling is not as strong as Olivia Colman’s performance. Yet, like going to the movies, earnestness draws you back into the theater seat to watch it unfold compellingly.