Conceding someone’s job can be just a job, Empire of Light still hurls a hot heap of hooey in its hint that Hilary — the assistant manager of the Empire, a twin-screen theater on England’s South Coast in the early 1980s — has never actually seen a movie. After an emotional epiphany, she rushes there after hours and insists that projectionist Norman finally show her one. He dutifully obliges, asks what she wants to see, and she tells him to choose for her.
Now, this is where Norman having held on to some rare print of a beloved film pays off, right? Well, no. Nothing like that here. So, Norman has spliced together several hundred second-long snippets of the films he’s screened into a sort of greatest-hits reel he can show her, yeah? Nope. Not that, either. For Hilary, Norman screens Being There, which is … one of the two movies that’s currently playing at the Empire. Gregory’s Girl is the other option. Ah, but that movie wasn’t nominated for multiple Academy Awards as Being There was … and Empire of Light so desperately wishes to be — and perhaps will be as this year’s model for the perfunctory eye-roller that edges out many more preferable options. (Oh, how far such supposed front-running films have fallen since the heyday of Hal Ashby.)
Last year, it was Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast — a comparative showstopper next to a paucity of personality found in Empire of Light. As written and directed by Sam Mendes (an Oscar winner himself years ago for American Beauty), Empire of Light primarily purports to prop up the power of cinema. But all such notions feel imported from the preface for a Film 101 textbook or perhaps the marketing gibberish in theater-chain ads. Maybe the snoozy, simplistic piano-based score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is meant to evoke musical reminders to silence cell phones before the film begins. (As for a Chariots of Fire premiere factoring into the plot, that just crafts a chronological jumble of films from 1979, 1980 or 1981 that all seem to play over a short time at a first-run venue.)
Empire of Light is equally thin in considering the ways in which racism and mental illness complicate the May-December romance that blossoms between middle-aged Hilary (Oscar-winner Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man whose architectural dreams are on hold while he ushers at the Empire. Both issues crash into this courtship with the subtlety of a sledgehammer on the schnoz, with flimsily predictable revelations and frustratingly pat resolutions.
It’s an agonizingly amorphous approach to which, thankfully, Colman and Ward lend sympathetic shape. Pitched at opposite extremes of age, Hilary and Stephen share the dread of not knowing their life’s purpose and the fear that it will be a perpetually insurmountable, and inescapable, problem. Even as Mendes’ script fumbles with how their attraction to one another is presented and paced, Colman and Ward eventually help it make sense as perhaps a way for these people to happily pass some time together. Sometimes simply just working around the oversimplified social issues in Mendes’s script, Colman and Ward also shepherd it into a believable connection of warmth, worry and wild passion. That the actors can accomplish this after the screenplay literalizes the idea that Hilary is a bird with a broken wing in need of tender love and care is almost a miracle unto itself.
For all his profound shortcomings as a screenwriter (also reflected in his work on 1917), Mendes at least reclaims a bit of his visually directorial mojo in a way that, for the first time in a long time, doesn’t simply feel like visual-effects showboating. Empire of Light may be an Oscar-bait nothing-burger, but it’s a gorgeous one.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ reliably resplendent framing and composition, often against the ocean here, makes the Empire feel like a cinema at the edge of the known world, and the somewhat dilapidated boardwalk backdrop suggests a simultaneous elegance and erosion of a regional economy’s bread and butter. Then there’s the look and feel of the Empire itself. It’s a monument to art-deco movie-palace majesty of old so meticulously rendered down to the finest filigree that you feel like you’re physically stepping inside. You won’t begrudge Deakins or Mendes the numerous long shots of business as usual in the Empire’s lobby; all the better to gaze upon the immaculate production design of Mark Tildesley (No Time To Die), art direction by Tim Devine and set decoration by Kamlan Man.
The rest of Empire of Light simply borrows from all manner of better movies — including, rather surprisingly, this year’s own Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. (Hey. That’s Nana Connie’s favorite poem, Mr. Mendes. You keep your filthy hands off of it!) It’s the sort of ballad for bygone days you’ve heard countless times elsewhere, and performed with greater conviction than you find here.