In the era when content is king, Sam Mendes still believes in moving pictures. “Empire of Light” is the proof. While the world was in lockdown these past couple years, Mendes let his imagination run to his happy place: a grand old English movie palace he dubbed the Empire Cinema. Thousands pass through its art deco doors seeking escapism, but Mendes is more interested in the employees — the projectionist, the ticket takers, the box office attendant and so forth — whose stories, he senses, are every bit as interesting as the ones they show. And so he put them up on-screen where they belong.
But “Empire of Light” is more than just Mendes’ homage to an endangered art form — in fact, it spends a lot less time valorizing the medium than you might imagine. The movies bind this ersatz family, but it’s the people that matter in a project that may remind theater buffs of Annie Baker’s three-hour play “The Flick,” focusing on ushers in a run-down movie palace, with less sweeping and a lot more social commentary. In an attempt to elevate the more mundane aspects of their jobs, Mendes (who wrote the movie himself, a first) has assembled a terrific team, trusting that these performers can go deeper than their dialogue makes explicit, whether it’s Olivia Colman (who can do anything) as the romantically frustrated theater manager Hilary or relative newcomer (and “Blue Story” breakout) Micheal Ward as new hire Stephen. In an unusually sleazy cameo, Colin Firth plays the boss, Mr. Ellis, while a perfectly cast Toby Jones is Norman, who transforms light into life up in the booth.
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The year is 1981, Margaret Thatcher’s in charge, and England is in turmoil in ways that will seem uncannily similar to today’s Brexit and MAGA mindsets. Meanwhile, between big-budget distractions, movies like “Chariots of Fire” and “Being There” offered a progressive industry’s best answer to problems beyond their control (four decades later, “Empire of Light” is Mendes’ own response). The helmer never comes right out and says that the odd team of workers were drawn to this job because they don’t fit in to the real world, but studying them, it’s hard to ignore that they’re all outsiders of one sort or another.
In Hilary’s case, her backstory is suggested but never revealed. We know she’s on lithium (which is a drug that’s not lightly prescribed), and that meeting Stephen inspires her to stop taking the stuff. But that backfires in a scene where she snaps, demolishing a sandcastle on an otherwise pleasant date (Colman delivers some of her best work here, whether subtly wearing Hilary’s insecurities on the surface or bringing them to a boil, her mascara running and dignity obliterated). For his part, Stephen dreams of becoming an architect, but as a Black man in the English seaside resort town of Margate, he has his hands full trying not to get jumped by white supremacists, who represent a very real threat.
The pandemic compelled so many of us to look in the mirror and pose existential questions about what we were doing and why. Mendes clearly had a lot on his mind, too, from race relations to mental health, and in the Empire, he found a container to explore them all. Too many issues in too neat a space, some might argue, but better that than the opposite. “Empire of Light” is what I think of as a “snow globe movie,” the sort where everything looks perfect, to the point of artificiality: The camera doesn’t wobble; the light is just right. If you were to walk the empty aisles, your shoes wouldn’t stick to the floor. On the soundtrack, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross supply a lovely music-box score. But even within that aesthetic, there’s room for reality — and the deeper you get into Mendes’ story, the tougher and more unpredictable it gets.
Meanwhile, the too-tidy vibe results in part from Mendes’ ongoing collaboration with DP Roger Deakins, who’s a master to be sure, but no longer someone who works on the intimate scale this project seems to want. The duo shoot in hi-def digital widescreen, which feels like the right fit during scenes where “Empire of Light” aims to emphasize the sheer grandeur of the cinema’s design — as in the magical scene where Hilary first takes Stephen upstairs to see the empty ballroom and unused screens — but feels less intimate a few scenes later, when they share New Year’s Eve on the roof and Hilary boldly steals a kiss.
The budding romance between them is surprising for any number of reasons: the age difference, the racial attitudes suggested in the town around them, the fact that Stephen loves movies, whereas Hilary’s never bothered to watch one in all the years she’s worked at the Empire (no prizes for predicting that will change before the end credits). Hilary favors poetry to film and has no friends to speak of, whereas Stephen still lives with his mom and seems relatively naive on certain subjects. “No one’s going to give you the life you want,” she tells him. “You have to go out and get it.” In other areas, he has to educate her (and a few of us), as in a valuable walk-and-talk session following a run-in with a racist customer.
Hilary doesn’t seem to have any hangups about dating a Black man, but Stephen knows the dangers, removing his arm from around Hilary’s shoulder when a white man boards the bus. Readers probably needn’t be reminded that such issues have hardly gone away, though they might not recall how tensions boiled up in 1981 England (obviously the reason Mendes chose to set the film then), with urban race riots in some cities and National Front mobs in others. “Empire of Light” climaxes early as that situation gets out of hand, trapping everyone we care about inside the lobby.
Can a century-old movie palace insulate people from the world? Not really, but it can certainly bring them together — as music can, too, suggests Mendes, making a case for ska. (The film might just as easily have taken place at a record store or a nightclub, though there’s something meta-glorious about watching Colman watch a movie after a long stretch in which theaters were dark.) To the extent one could say the cinema is also a character, it may amuse you to know that Mendes shot in Margate, restoring (to an earlier state of neglect) a 99-year-old art deco beauty called the Dreamland — though the name would have been too on-the-nose had he kept it.
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