2022 | rated R | starring Olivia Coleman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones | written and directed by Sam Mendes | 1h 55m |
In a time when masses of people have decided it’s easier to stay home and stream movies on their large TVs than go to the theater, movie studios themselves have responded with a series of movies about theater nostalgia as a last gasp to prove their own relevance. Empire of Light like The Fabelmans and Babylon recall a time when movie theaters were your only source to watch movies and the old Hollywood studio system reigned supreme. It was also, admittedly, a communal experience that we have atomized ourselves from now and an argument for film over digital media – but all of these arguments don’t get explored in Sam Mendes’ very superficial piece of by-the-numbers Oscar bait.
Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is a lonely Assistant Manager at the Empire Theater in a small coastal British town in the 80s. She takes pride in her job while having no interest in the actual movies that are being shown, has an affair with her boss (Colin Firth) and soon meets Stephen (Michael Ward), a young black cinemaphile. The two spark a friendship that turns into an age-gap office romance that illuminates all of the insecurities in each of their lives.
Empire of Light looks good – because Sam Mendes is inarguable talent from a technical level. It’s well acted because Olivia Coleman is an inarguable master of her craft. The film puts us in, all be it briefly in it’s time and place rather well. But Empire has a lot of flailing storylines that conflict with each other and never come together in a satisfying way. It adds up to Mendes doing a lot of Oscar bait box-ticking but not a lot of honesty in the relationships. As someone who likes theaters and likes unlikely friendships, this movie should be right up by alley and Mendes the writer can’t articulate the vision of Mendes the director.
The central relationship doesn’t work because it keeps oscillating between a friendship and a romance. As a love story it’s sexless – apart from the only kind of sex scene allowed in movies nowadays: the angry, desperate hand-job, delivered by Coleman to Firth in the dark in his office (Oscar-bait check #1). As a friendship story, Coleman and Ward don’t have the chemistry to sink into it and the script never bonds them in a situation together. Instead, the film highlights their differences and comes off as a competition between the two as to who is more socially oppressed and personally damaged. Because Stephen is black the movie superficially explores him facing prejudice (Oscar-bait check #2). Because that kind of prejudice doesn’t ring true in today’s society, the movie has to be a period piece (Oscar-bait check #3) just like everything from the Netflix miniseries When They See Us to the inexplicable Oscar winner Green Book, this steady diet of race-prejudice period pieces is designed to make it seem like nothing has changed in the last 70 years. In reality if these stories could be set today, they would be.
Because Hilary is a woman she is driven mad by the men in her life suffocating her the history of mental illness the movie illudes to (Oscar-bait #4 and 5) gets kicked off by an employer/employee affair. The fact that her boss is also drawn as pathetic and powerless makes this all the less convincing. The fact that she herself then perpetuates that power relationship with a new, younger employee is also seemingly lost on Mendes.
Then there is the matter of the film appreciation. Empire is set in a theater with a small group of quirky characters (Oscar-bait #6). Toby Jones as the projectionist describes to Stephen the magic of film, a speech in which Mendes almost gets to the point. So close you can taste it. But he still doesn’t articulate it the way Quintin Tarantino once did off the cuff. Compared to digital, film is a series of still images that appear to be moving. That itself is an illusion. That’s what people refer to as movie magic because it literally is a trick. Digital has no magic to it. Nothing is going on that you can’t see. This comparison is entirely up to the viewer as Empire’s 80s setting doesn’t let it compare film with digital. You could have set the film in an independent theater in the present day as it was facing a demand to move to digital, but then Mendes wouldn’t have the Margret Thatcher race storyline he, for reasons unknown, wants.
All of these elements pull at each other and none of them are done particularly well. The film is superficially nostalgic for films but if Mendes cares at all about theaters that doesn’t come across. The love story would have worked better as a friendship story and Mendes is unable to slip into the lives of either a woman or a black man in order to convey anything unique about their struggles. Few things are less romantic than watching two characters, supposedly in love, competing with each other to see who is more oppressed.