Sam Mendes the director faces off against Sam Mendes the screenwriter in “Empire of Light”, an ambitious undertaking that feels like about four different movies crammed into one. It’s a romance, a socio-political study, an ode to cinema history, a workplace drama. It’s bevy of themes includes racism, mental illness, sexual harassment, working class struggles. Some things fare much better than others. Ultimately it’s too much to juggle, and Mendes the director can’t quite compensate for Mendes the screenwriter.
“Empire” is chock-full of compelling pieces. It has Olivia Colman as its star. It’s shot by the great Roger Deakins. It has a wonderful period appeal. It has scenes that exquisitely celebrate the movie theater experience. All of these strengths work to realize Mendes’ big vision and are driven by his obvious passion for the many subjects he attempts to tackle.
But simply put, Mendes has too much on his plate. And while I love Colman’s brilliantly layered performance, Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography, etc., the story feels like a patchwork of loosely connected ideas with some carrying enough weight to be their own movie. But here, none of them get the attention they need to project the kind of “importance” Mendes is going for. So we end up with a film that feels stitched together and that never reaches the heights it’s clearly aiming for.
The story is set in the early 1980s and spends most of its time at a movie house in an English coastal town. The Empire was once a prestigious theater with a restaurant, a bar, a ballroom, and five total screening rooms. But over time business dropped off, and the Empire was forced to downsize. Eventually everything was shutdown save two screening rooms, and it scrapes by with a small but dedicated staff (a well-handled the metaphor for the struggling theaters of today).
Colman plays Hilary Small, the duty manager at the Empire. We’re introduced to her through a terrific opening credits montage showing her opening up the theater. She unlocks doors, turns out the lights, checks on the candy display, and opens up the box office. The art deco decor, the red velvet curtains with gold trim, the shiny brass railings – its a transporting sequence shot with stunning detail.
While the movie house setting beams with nostalgic joy, Hilary is much the opposite. We can’t help but notice her lonely, detached, melancholy (at one point she fittingly describes herself as “numb”). Her eclectic blend of co-workers are an easygoing bunch, none more fun than Toby Jones as Norman, the theater’s projectionist. On the other end is Hilary’s weaselly boss Mr. Daniel Ellis (Colin Firth). He runs the theater behind a facade of respectability. In truth he’s an abusive slime who often uses his power to satisfy his sexual urges (something that gets more heinous as Hilary’s story unfolds).
Hilary‘s demeanor changes when a younger new employee named Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the Empire’s staff. Hilary is tasked with showing him the ropes and quickly becomes enamored with his youthful spirit and personality. Eventually, an unexpected and slightly underdeveloped romance develops. Mendes uses several aspects of their relationship for commentary (their age difference; she’s white, he’s Black). Some of it resonates. Some of it is glaringly on-the-nose.
Before you know it, Mendes is balancing his ‘love letter to cinema and movie theaters’ with a multi-faceted and frustratingly uneven character drama. The on-again-off-again chemistry between Colman and Ward doesn’t help. Both performances are solid, but the screenplay doesn’t always put them in the best positions. Things only get messier once Mendes shallowly digs into mental health, white supremacy, etc.
But then you have what works best, namely Mendes’ full-hearted expression of his love for movies, the theater experience, and the history of cinema itself. It shines through in several great bits, both big and easy to miss. Some are as broad as the evocative theater setting itself. Others are very specific scenes, none better than Norman giving Michael a detailed rundown of the projection room (It’s one of my favorite scenes of the year). Too bad it feels so at odds with other things the movie is trying to do.
And that gets back to the film’s biggest problem – it’s all over the map narratively, thematically, even tonally. And when making deep affecting themes part of your story, you want to give them the attention they need. That doesn’t always happen in “Empire”. It’s well-meaning for sure but pretty bare in its considerations, leaving some themes feeling tacked onto an already stuffed movie. Meanwhile we end up feeling torn between admiring the movie Mendes wanted to make and accepting the one we end up with. “Empire of Light” hits theaters December 9th.