Considering the commercial success of his previous movie – the award-winning World War I drama 1917 – you could say British filmmaker Sam Mendes definitely earned the right to indulge himself in a pet project. Hence, Empire of Light, a movie inspired by both his love of cinema and his actual mother whom Mendes claimed had struggled with mental health issues. Its centerpiece is the Empire Theater located in a coastal town of England. The year is 1980, and The Empire is featuring American headliners like All That Jazz and The Blues Brothers. But for us, the main headliner is Olivia Colman plying her acting talents as Hilary, The Empire’s assistant manager. Hilary’s passion is poetry, but the drugs she takes to treat her schizophrenia have flatlined her zest for life. New to the Empire’s crew is Stephen, an intelligent young black man played by Michael Ward. Stephen dreams of going to college to study architecture, but he’s battling the headwinds of Thatcher-era racism. Hillary takes an immediate liking to Stephen despite the fact he’s roughly half her age. Surprisingly, he takes to her as well, and they quickly become lovers. Happy and re-engaged with life, Hillary foregoes her Thorazine. It doesn’t take long before cracks in her facade begin to appear.
Empire of Light is the first script Mendes wrote entirely on his own, and it shows. The heart of the story lies in Hilary and Stephen’s romance, but it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in what seems like an exercise in scriptwriting instead of a real-life couple. Their utter lack of on-screen chemistry requires us to speculate that their social struggles served as a springboard for mutual attraction, even though the vague parallels that Mendes draws between the problems each faces are tenuous at best. Then there’s the supporting cast of theater employees that are as one-dimensional as cardboard cutouts; Colin Firth is underutilized as Hillary’s philandering boss, Tom Brooke plays the resident geek, and Hanna Onslow is a punkish fan of New Wave music always plugged into her Walkman. Lastly, there’s Toby Jones, an unquestionably fine actor who portrays The Empire’s faithful projectionist. Here, Jones is given the unenviable task of spouting out trite monologues, such as extolling the magic of cinema.
At least Mendes appears to have had some fun playing around with movie titles of that era. Raging Bull can be seen prominently displayed on the Empire’s marquee shortly before raging skinheads run amok. Later, Peter Seller’s classic Being There foreshadows Hilary’s supportive visit to Stephen after he falls victim to racial violence. And considering the inordinate amount of thought that goes into the creative decisions behind every movie, it’s likely that Mendes was being a cheeky punster when he decided Hilary and Stephen should meet for sex in the Empire’s abandoned ballroom. But clever subtext can’t compensate for a derivative story that leans into contrived acts of racism and failed attempts to elicit our exaltation for the moviegoing experience.
Criticisms aside, Olivia Colman’s performance is the tide that lifts all ships. Over the last several years, she’s repeatedly proven herself worthy of being included in the same conversation as any of the great screen actors, past and present. Colman’s complex portrayal of Hilary is what keeps the film afloat. But as an exploration of a May-December romance, an unstable psyche, racism, or movie magic, Empire of Light sputters along the same well-worn road that far better films have traveled before.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.
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