Director Sam Mendes has been a force in Hollywood for decades, blowing the doors down in 1999 with American Beauty, nabbing five Academy Awards, including Best Director, while the film itself was nominated for eight. That’s a hell of an entrance. Followed up by six-time nominated Road to Perdition (2002), it seemed like he could do no wrong. His films have garnered 34 nominations and 12 wins, recognition that he is an extremely talented director with an eye for great visuals. He always had a few secret weapons, either a co-writer, or someone else’s script, and some bloody good cinematography. Partnering with Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) for five of his nine films might be his greatest stroke of genius as the man could light a potato and get an Oscar nomination. Mendes has the pedigree and the weight to make any project he wants. He was given the keys to the Bond franchise and his last film, 1917 (2019), was one of the best war films of the decade. So why choose a small story about a depressed theater manager? Perhaps there is a deeper connection to the material.
Set in England in the early 1980s at an old movie palace called “Empire.” The once lavish and posh theater has now fallen on harder times. The staff is a disparate group comprised of the nerd, the punk girl, the grumpy projectionist played wonderfully by Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and the depressed duty manager, Hillary, played by Olivia Coleman (The Mitchells vs. The Machines), who seems incapable of a bad performance.
It is Coleman’s character who is the focus. She spends her days in a boring routine, stuck in a haze. She’s having passionless sex with her married boss and eats her meals alone. And if that isn’t enough, Mendes will gladly show you Hillary dunking herself under her bath water to show how truly morose she feels. Much like the neglected theater, she is a shell of who she once was. It’s so literal in its allegory of an old neglected theater and Hillary wanting love and companionship, it’s almost insulting. Nuance and subtly are forsaken for something masquerading as poetic, but ends up somewhere closer to a hammer for which to hit all the nails on the head.
When the affable young Stephen (Michael Ward) joins as the new hire at the theater, Hillary is woken up from her malaise, intrigued and attracted to him right away. Their subsequent romance will be the focus for the rest of the film, weaving in and out of several different storylines. Stephen, being a Black man, is the target of racism and violent attacks, while Hillary is dealing with her bi-polar disorder, and they both grapple with their romance.
This is Mendes’s first solo writing credit and he has said this film is personal to him. It would seem his aspirations outweighed the result. What seeks to be Cinema Paradiso (1988) in its tone and emotional weight, ends up being muddied. The overlapping storylines never bring into focus what the filmmaker is wanting to say. Instead, we are pulled towards two different paths. Is this about mental health? Is it about race relations in 1980s England? Neither of them is about film and its ability to bring people together, yet there are moments set aside to show you the craft and mysterious beauty of changing out reels in a projector. It feels as though Mendes had a lot of ideas and tried them out, seeing what would stick. Centering these emotional and human experiences around the love of film is a great framing device, but it’s too much of an afterthought to land those feelings.
Regarding the bonus features included on the home release, there is only one featurette included. That featurette, “Creating Empire of Light,” is a very brief overview on the creative process that went into bringing the film from concept to screen. There are extremely brief interviews with just about every actor who had a speaking role, as well as with most of the above the line crew. It’s interesting to hear their thoughts and to get a glimpse of “the making of”, but if you’re looking for an in-depth look, or a documentary style behind-the-scenes look at the creative process, that will not be found.
If you love cinema and the experience of sitting in a quiet theater, the steady sound of the projector behind, discovering a movie that moves you, if that is magical to you, there will definitely be moments that stand out for you. There is a certain charm that can’t help but shine through. But it’s unfortunately masked by a drawn-out narrative. We are never with either of the main characters enough to follow through with any of their arcs, and there is little to no emotional closure.
Exceptional craft and a few great performances are enough to warrant this film a visit, but the style over substance product may deter you from extending your stay.
Empire of Light Special Features*
- Creating Empire of Light – Go behind the scenes of this personal film with writer-director Sam Mendes, and uncover the story’s origins and the director’s love of cinema. See how the perfect location was found to rebuild a classic movie theater that had the cast in awe. (18:11)
*Bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available on digital February 7th, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD February 21st, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Searchlight Pictures Empire of Light webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5
Categories: Home Release, Recommendation
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