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'Empire of Light' review: Sam Mendes' ode to cinema has no spark

Courtesy of Searchlight


The Oscar winning director of “American Beauty” and the filmmaker behind such gems as “Revolutionary Road” and “1917” hits a massive roadblock in his latest film “Empire of Light.” Sam Mendes, who also wrote the film, puts together an insane crew of craftsman behind the scenes including cinematographer (and fellow Oscar winner) Roger Deakins alongside composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but the look, sound, and feel of this lousy ode to moviegoing is a pointless, empty exercise made up of several different movies all jockeying for top billing, Is it celebrating romance? Moviegoing? Adultery? Who knows! But wasting an ensemble this stacked, Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Michael Ward, should be a crime against humanity.

The movie feels like a history lesson with nothing new or meaningful to say about the topics it’s exploring. Everything from a romance between a middle-aged woman and a young man during the rise of neo-fascist racism in the 1980s to mental illness and the celebration of cinema are watered down, struggling to land during the film's clumsy two hour runtime. Things feel out of order and so far removed from the characters, it all seems like an afterthought. But hey! At least it looks and sounds good. 

Colman plays Hilary, a secluded woman who is an assistant manager at a gorgeous, movie palace called the Empire located in an undisclosed coastal town in Britain. Each morning, she’s often corralled and forced to have sex with her married boss (Firth) before promptly getting the theater ready for daily activities. It’s a boring, depressing routine that experiences a shake-up with the hiring of a young man named Stephen (Ward). He’s handsome and college-aged, and suddenly Hilary feels something between them that goes beyond chummy co-workers. Never once during the entire movie did I feel these two would ever be together, let alone sneak off for a quickie in the abandoned attic of the Empire, but Mendes insists I do. 

The movie tries understanding the dynamics of a Black man living during an era when Nazi radicals are rising in the streets. Except Mendes keeps Stephen’s growth at an arm's length away, and instead awkwardly shifts gears towards Hilary’s out-of-nowhere bipolar diagnosis which makes her irate and unstable. It’s a disappointing arc and an even more disappointing performance that never matches the range nor dexterity of the Oscar winner even as she tries, desperately, to pull some levity from Mendes’ weak screenplay. 

The only time “Empire of Light” has some jolt is when it discusses the magic of movies. Jones gets enough mileage playing a stiff projectionist who teaches Stephen the ropes. Like watching for the reel change signal in the corner of the screen (the “cigarette burn”) and threading the 35mm projector. As someone who grew up working at a local movie theater and am probably the last of my generation who will remember building film prints, I appreciated these little details when it came to the mechanics of running a movie theater. The explanation of how 24 frames per second works is also a real treat. But alas, all goodwill from these brief moments are squandered during the final 20-minute stretch which comes and goes without much impact or fulfillment. It’s a snooze. 

Grade: C- 

EMPIRE OF LIGHT opens in theaters Friday, December 9th. 


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