Of Sam Mendes’ diverse filmography, Empire of Light may be his most minor film. It’s a light watch, breezy by nature, and even though it deals with heavy subject matter, the execution is mostly rather sunny. In a lot of ways, this is his stab at doing something like The Fabelmans, or Cinema Paradiso — namely, a notable filmmaker speaking on the transformative power of cinema — but whereas those examples have a director surrogate within their cast of characters, there is no Bobo Mendes in Empire of Light. Instead this is about a short, exciting fondness shared between two lost characters who happen to work at the Empire movie theater.
The Empire is the type of theater you don’t see anymore. It has curtains, ushers, a union card-carrying projectionist, and a staff that actually gives a shit. It’s a place of magic, wonder, and pretty much everything else Nicole Kidman promises AMC will deliver just before AMC leaves the house lights on for the first hour of the movie (if they can get the movie to play at all). The year is 1981, and Thatcherism is on the rise in England, and as a result, skinheads are feeling quite emboldened in their brand of hatred. For someone like Hillary (Olivia Colman), this doesn’t much affect her day, but for Stephen (Michael Ward), a young Black man who just started working alongside her at the Empire, this proposes an all-too-common danger.
You’d never know it to look at him, as Stephen’s exterior is that of a happy go-lucky film enthusiast experiencing the standard issue insecurity about his future that all college-aged kids go through. He’s content, at least for the moment, to have fun at the movies and make a few bucks until he can figure out what’s next. His youthful energy attracts Hillary, herself only recently returned to the Empire after an extended hiatus, and the two begin a sweet, low-key affair, that isn’t nearly as private as they believe it to be. This causes tension with their rather particular (and to Hillary, abusive) boss (Colin Firth), and brings the two friends to a crossroads that highlights their very different futures.
The film spends most of its runtime in the guts of the Empire, mining much enjoyment out of the process of exhibiting films for the masses. It’s a joy to watch the projectionist (Tony Jones) give a lesson on delivering a seamless splicing of reels within the projection booth, just as it is to watch New Year’s Eve fireworks with Hillary and Stephen from the roof. A cinephile will surely feel the magic, made all the more gorgeous by flawless cinematography from the master, Roger Deakins. The story beats are not as exciting to take in, despite the strong characterizations fueling them. This is a result of an unfocused script (some may prefer to think of it as carefree) that works so hard to be about everything that it’s ultimately about nothing. Things happen at their own pace, which is enjoyable to take in, but saps the film of its full effectiveness.
This isn’t to say it’s not effective, however. Both Colman and Ward make their very different characters universally relatable, with a third act development that unexpectedly recontextualizes the manifestation of their relationship, as well as what kept it alive for as long as it did. It’s a rather dark revelation that gives Colman a chance to dig deep (and boy does she), but in the larger picture it feels a bit like a cheat — a cheat that is very well sold by the performers, even if the script leaves it undercooked.
The period detail is on point throughout, giving the Empire cinema a wonderfully cozy feel that respectably restrains from leaning too hard into nostalgia, using it only to give the place a proper lived-in feel. Add to that a bunch of exceptional performances, a selection of fantastic needle drops, and a dreamy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the half-cooked nature of the script melts away. It’s rare that a film which fails to hit as hard as it wants to demands a rewatch, but Empire of Light feels like one that can be taken in repeatedly. Perhaps it will grow on me with more familiarity.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Sam Mendes
Starring Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones
Rated R, 119 minutes