Other Than the Fireworks Scene, ‘Empire of Light’ Leaves a Dim Impression

The director, Sam Mendes, seems to feel something for these characters, but conveys little beside a figurative ‘sorry.’

Parisa Taghizadeh, via Searchlight Pictures
Olivia Colman in ‘Empire of Light.’ Parisa Taghizadeh, via Searchlight Pictures

Some have touted “Empire of Light” as a nostalgic celebration of movie magic, something akin to “Cinema Paradiso,” “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” or “Belfast.” That’s quite a stretch. Although it revolves around a decaying movie palace at an English seaside town in the ’80s, called the Empire, director Sam Mendes’s latest has little else to do with cinema.  

The protagonist, Hilary (Olivia Colman), works inside the octagonal concession stand encased between two carpeted staircases at the center of the Empire’s chandelier-lit lobby. She has recently been on leave due to a mental breakdown, but her apparent fragile emotional state does little to deter her married boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), from coaxing her into compromising sex acts in the back office.  

Hilary evidently doesn’t have much of a life outside work. She can’t find a partner at the dance social she drops into regularly and she dines alone in a restaurant. This could be what prompts her to take an interest in her work underling, Stephen (Micheal Ward), a much younger Black man. Stephen is a sweetheart: While Hilary is giving him a tour of the abandoned lounge and auditoriums upstairs, he cuts up his sock to bandage a pigeon with a broken wing. 

Their unlikely friendship soon turns into an unlikely romance. So, rather than the power of cinema, “Empire of Light” focuses on an unconvincing bond between two outcasts experiencing very different traumas.  

Mr. Mendes, who wrote and directed, has said Hilary is a tribute to his mother, novelist Valerie Mendes, which perhaps explains why the film only observes her and doesn’t present her perspective. For the most part, her motivations aren’t clear. 

We don’t really know if it’s love, company, or just a sense of normalcy she longs for. Her moments of volatility alienate us rather than elicit our sympathy. Ms. Colman’s performance is only serviceable, perhaps debilitated by a flawed screenplay that leans on her heavily to engage the audience.  

Stephen endures a couple of violent hate crimes, which are of course upsetting to witness. The film means to use these anecdotes to illustrate the intolerant atmosphere of the time and place without showing how these unsettling acts transform any of the characters viscerally. 

Stephen appears to be in a different mood each time we see him, leaving us no real sense of who he is. Both main characters seem emotionally inaccessible. We have no idea what attracts them to each other. If Hilary’s delusion is the point, Stephen’s receptiveness to her advances makes no sense. In the end, the film is as empty as those musty corners of the Empire theater sealed off to the public. 

Roger Deakins’s cinematography is itself a conversation piece, especially all the interior and night scenes that are so severely underlit that it looks like they take place before the advent of electricity. The centerpiece involving Hilary and Stephen watching fireworks on the Empire’s rooftop is so spectacular that the film’s poster employs three different stills taken from the scene. 

Yet the film doesn’t really give us a sense of place beyond the grand movie house. We get but few visual clues to place us firmly at the English seaside. Maybe the location scouts are to blame for this. 

These cinematic trips down memory lane normally work when filmmakers insert younger avatars of themselves coming of age against the backdrops. Curiously, Mr. Mendes excuses himself from the proceedings. As a result, a sense of cool detachment permeates the film. 

The director seems to feel something for these characters, but conveys little beside a figurative “sorry.” To be sure, mental illness and racism are very worthy topics. By conflating them, Mr. Mendes trivializes the gravity of both without arriving at an epiphany, rendering these weighty subjects mere footnotes in an impossible May to December romance. 

The New York Sun

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