Thursday, December 08, 2022

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light

The Empire Theatre is troubled, but the movies it books are not part of the problem. During the course of this film, we will see it screening Chariots of Fire, The Blues Brothers, Smoky and the Bandit, and Being There. Unfortunately, this release is not nearly as good as those that it references in passing. It is presented as a tribute to the movie-going experience, but like a bad projectionist, focus is a problem for Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, which opens tomorrow.

Hilary Small is the one who keeps things running at the Empire, in the coastal town of Margate. However, she is easily dominated by her exploitative boss, Mr. Ellis, who also uses her for quickies in his office, much to the disgust of the other employees. Her life of quiet desperation leads to a breakdown, but after her brief hospitalization, she returns for more of the same, just with more medication. Things only start to change when Stephen joins the staff. The smart teen aging into adulthood should be going to university, but he lacks sufficient funds and the proper skin color (according to Mendes’ didactic screenplay).

He and Small are drawn together, as fellow outsiders. Their rapport will take a turn towards the romantic, despite vast differences between them. However, Stephen will eventually figure out Small’s emotional issues have only been masked, rather than cured.

If you want to watch the great cinematographer Roger Deakins paint pretty pictures with light, then
Empire will certainly deliver. However, the melodrama reeks of sentimentality and the periodic attacks on Thatcherism (which reversed the UK’s decline into economic stagnation and international insignificance) are gratingly unnecessary distractions.

Frankly, despite some rather lovely scenes of projectors streaming down on the movie palace’s screen,
Empire could have just as easily been set in a fish & chips shop, without losing much beyond Deakin’s visuals. Small’s relationship with her co-worker stays on the right (legal) side of Summer of ’42, but it is hard to buy them as a romantic couple. At times, Stephen gets lost in the film, overshadowed by Small’s angst and resentments. Focus really is an issue here.

That is a shame, because Michael Ward is excellent as Stephen. Watching his character mature and develop greater compassion is the film’s only real payoff. In contrast, Olivia Colman indulges in highs of anger and lows of depression that come across as showy, but hollow Oscar-bait. Former Oscar winner Colin Firth merely plays Ellis as a smarmy caricature. Only Toby Jones brings any substance in support as Norman, the curmudgeonly projectionist, who carries his own sad baggage.

As for the gorgeous looking Empire Theatre, it is a massively cinematic location (the Dreamland Margate Cinema in real-life), but it mostly just represents a paycheck to the characters. It all looks great on the surface, but it is cold and rather bitter on the inside. Not recommended,
Empire of Light opens tomorrow (12/9) in New York, at the AMC Lincoln Square.