Movies about movies by prolific filmmakers are en vogue right now, as are movies aping their youth or experience. Bonus points if they get both. Armageddon Time probes James Gray’s early school experiences with systemic racism, The Fabelmans acts as a pseudo-biopic of Steven Spielberg’s early years, Bardo is a wholesale exploration of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s psyche. Sam Mendes, esteemed filmmaker behind such films as American Beauty, 1917, and Skyfall, now gets his chance to make his, although with less of himself in the proceedings. Or so it seems. To evaluate his latest, Empire of Light, set in a 1980s English cinema, one must ask the question: who is Sam Mendes as a storyteller? What makes him tick?
Beyond his many collaborations with cinematographer Roger Deakins, there are few unifying features to the films of Sam Mendes. Nonetheless, all it takes is a cursory glance at his theater background to notice the common thread. Namely, he has an eye for bleeding heart, human-first storytelling bordering on melodrama. Empire of Light feels very at home in Mendes’ shaggy oeuvre in this respect, although less in step with the movies about movies/personal story trend of late. Deakins, as is compulsory for him, makes a grand sight of the wood paneling and warm red carpets where Hillary Small (Olivia Colman) toils away as a manager. Yet, it’s less a swooning tribute to cinema and more an environment where Hillary can feel safe from the casual cruelty of the world. Within the walls of the cinema, Empire of Light tells a bewitching story, when it gets out of its own way.
Act surprised when I tell you that Colman is magnificent in this film. Pleasant and polite, Hillary hides away within the walls of the Empire, pining after her boss (Colin Firth) who merely uses her for sexual favors. At the same time, she denies exploration of her own mental anguish. Who she is on the outside is incidental. With the support of her crew, played by the likes of Hannah Oslow and the superb Toby Jones, Hillary finds a way to cope with a mundane existence. That is, until new employee Stephen (Michael Ward) arrives, inspiring a feeling that she’d long suppressed: romance.
Empire of Light achieves bliss when focusing on the burgeoning love, lust, or whatever you’d call it between Colman and Ward’s characters. He’s drawn in by her refreshing honesty and quiet beauty. She’s drawn in by his youthful curiosity and ability to inspire deep passion in her. When they help a wounded bird or watch fireworks on New Year’s, an underlying sweetness pangs with more than a hint of sexual tension. Once that release happens, backed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s swooning score, Mendes achieves a feeling of rapture in his audience. Helped, no less, by the refusal to place Hillary’s desires as any less valid than Stephen’s. As that same score descends into a more ominous drone and their relationship encounters issues, Empire of Light keeps us tight within its grip until a couple of missteps dilute the overall experience.
Blessedly, the film’s third act manages to pull things together. Just as they drift apart, Hillary and Stephen come back together in a sense, their relationship redefined. And as Hillary and Stephen find their way back to the Empire, Empire of Light affirms through a strongly purposeful series of scenes its own thesis. The world outside can be uncaring, and although something like a cinema job might seem like a distraction, it can be a place of salvation. Rather, the relationships formed there are salvation. No one can have the life they quite want, but they can find solace in the people around them. Even if your job is slinging popcorn, the people who rotate in and out of your life make it worthwhile.
If that point seems twee or overwrought, Empire of Light – like a lot of melodramas – is probably not for you. Also, like most melodramas, Empire of Light can be so eager to throw its characters through the wringer that it ends up more shaggy than it needs to be. Sam Mendes can be a phenomenal humanist storyteller that can go overboard in how to bring out those emotions. That’s neither here nor there: if you want to see a film full of unabashed emotion that lets the beauty of relationships, no matter mundane the setting, wash over you, step into the Empire Cinema. –James Preston Poole
Empire of Light is now in theaters.
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