Sam Mendes calls his solo outing as a screenwriter a love letter to cinema, but it is really a love letter to the human connection featuring impressive technical feats.
Following up his bombastic war picture, 1917, Mendes tones it down in a Margaret Thatcher-era coastal English town. Instead of a film, he presents a series of events almost told as a series of short stories of the workers at an older movie theater. In this delicate story, two of the theater coworkers come together in times of flux to get each other through life.
A sense of melancholy is in the air as the year is about to come to an end. The art deco theater that is full of stories from the past is a place of escapism for its visitors. It has a small number of employees who are the real focus of Mendes’s narrative. He is interested in the projectionist, ticket takers, and box office employees who all have as interesting stories as the ones on the screen.
One of the employees, Hilary (Olivia Colman), is a quiet, middle-aged woman who has arguably-unwanted sexual encounters with the theater manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). She comes to work to sell candy in the front, but has never actually watched any of the movies playing at the theater. She lives a very lonely life of dinners for one and dance classes. Her life is very monotonous as she keeps to herself until the theater gets a new employee, Stephen (Michael Ward), who brings light into her life.
Stephen’s kind arrival draws the whole staff to him, but Hilary remains a bit hesitant about her new coworker. She recognizes a similarity between the two as they are both isolated in their cozy beach town. He is an outsider for being Black in a white nationalist country while she is struggling with her mental health. Both of their issues are handled with care throughout the script. Shortly, they fall into a romance. The romance between the two is surprising to many because of the age difference and race relations in their town.
The aesthetic of the film is immaculate from the cinematography of Roger Deakins to the score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross’s score is one of the best of the year with a moody piano that builds up into wonder over the course of the film. The visuals enhance the story and aren’t too distracting from what Mendes is trying to communicate to his audience. The production design brings life to the old theater palace that is the main stage for a lot of these human connections. All of these elements together elevate the magic of movies through the theater workers.
Every single creative detail of the film is perfection, almost like a dollhouse but as the film progresses, it slowly starts to crack. Colman forgoes her soft-spoken tone and turns up the ferocity of her performance. In another scene, Stephen is severely beaten in a place that has become a safe haven for him. Even in these jarring moments, Mendes maintains steadiness to keep his film on course to its end.
Where the film gets messy is when it tries to decide what it wants to be among a multitude of ideas it presents across its runtime. It is a coming-of-age story, a renewed spirit of being middle-aged, a drama about the racist nationalism uprising in England. It attempts to balance all three around its characters carefully by listening to them instead of trying to preach a message. The best part of the film is the relationships among the theater workers but it gets lost through Sam Mendes’s stream of consciousness. It never hits on the idea of being a love letter to cinema except when Stephen enters the projection room and this little magical moment leaves the audience wanting more.
Mendes doesn’t try to offer any solutions to the plights his characters carry, but he leaves them with hope. Hilary and Stephen find pleasure in each other which alleviates and complicates their pain. They share an appreciation for learning from one another. Hilary shows Stephen the theater’s abandoned floor that was once a place of noise. The film seems to hint at a revival of the space, but that is not the purpose. In this ghostly ballroom, the two make it their secret place away from all their troubles. Here is where they can come together and the world becomes theirs.
Empire of Light is a lovely, personal film illuminating tiny splices of life. Mendes brings magic to the employees of the Empire, but unfortunately, his mixture of themes never fits into one solid story.
Likely: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design
Should be Considered: Best Supporting Actor (Michael Ward)
Where to Watch: In Theaters
Lives in LA
Favorite Director: David Fincher