This week I screened two movies that promise to pay tribute to the magic of cinema by offering glimpses into its history. One particular film goes so hard that it goes over-the-top in moments and overplays the filmmaker’s love and passion for the medium. The other which is this movie, Empire of Light, actually falls short when it comes to showing its love for movies. As for the movie that overdoes it, I will save that reveal for that particular review. So, when it comes to Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, there is a lot to love like and admire here, but I feel that Mendes underplays the role of movies in his story and which does his tribute a great disservice.
Taking place in the 1980s, Empire of Light mostly focuses on the seemingly mundane and ordinary life of Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a soft-spoken and mild-mannered assistant manager of the classic movie theater named The Empire. In its hey day, The Empire was the place to be. However, those days are gone and the theater manages to keep afloat despite its slowly waning ticket sales. Hilary’s quiet life gets a breath of fresh excitement when the young, exciting, but courteous Stephen (Micheal Ward) gets hired. Though they have a considerable age difference, both Stephen and Hilary share an undeniable attraction which sparks a love affair. There is more to Hilary than meets the eye, and there is more happening behind the scenes at the theater than Stephen initially realizes.
Written and directed by Mendes, Empire of Light works mostly well as a portrait of an unconventional romance and the eventual problems that surface. I couldn’t help, but think that Mendes drew inspiration from such films as Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and attempts to blend his admiration for these movies with his love for movie theaters. The problem is a case of imbalance. There is much focus on the relationship aspects of the characters, along with the experiences of working in a movie theater, but just not enough love and romance for cinema. Mendes barely scratches the surface of what cinema can do for people, especially does hurting.
On the positive side of the spectrum, Empire of Light has a fantastic cast with Olivia Colman giving yet another brilliant performance as Hilary. As her younger love interest Stephen, Micheal Ward exudes a quiet strength, mixed with winsome charisma, and haunting vulnerability. The movie also can boast great work by Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, and Crystal Clarke.
Another highlight in this movie is always incredible cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins. I can mostly definitely say that this movie looks absolutely gorgeous. It is just a shame that this film couldn’t affect me more when it comes to being a supposed love letter to my favorite art form and form of entertainment. I still admire Sam Mendes as a great filmmaker, as he has made some incredible movies previously, most of which still stand the test of time. Unfortunately, this movie left me wanting more. I wanted to see a greater connection between life’s troubles and the power and magic of movies.