Empire of Light (2022)

We have all presumably felt that specific sensation at least once, the feeling of walking through those doors, handing the usher your ticket while trying to balance your overpriced treats from the concession stand, before walking into that dimly-lit theatre and taking your seat amongst a few dozen other strangers, all gathered together to undergo a journey into another time and place for a couple of hours. Going to the cinema may not be a universal experience, but it is something that a majority of us share in some way. If there is a subject Hollywood loves to explore more than its own ingenuity, it would be the way audiences react to its output, which has meant there has never been a shortage of films that can be categorized under the reductive banner of “celebrating the magic of movies”, or some similarly trite adage that aims to layer far more importance on the industry than it does the individuals that propel it. It would appear as if Sam Mendes is actively interested in exploring the other side of this experience, focusing not solely on the visitors to a cinema or those who create it, but rather on the people in the middle, those anonymous individuals that help make that experience possible by ensuring these cinemas function as well as they should, giving audiences the chance to take those fascinating and endearing journeys. Empire of Light sees Mendes telling the story of a seaside cinema somewhere in Britain as it prepares for a massively important event in the early 1980s, specifically focusing on the trials and tribulations of Hilary, the cinema duty manager who has been through several challenges in her life, and is merely seeking a peaceful existence, which is uprooted with the arrival of the newest hire, an alluring young man who instantly captures her attention and earns her affection, with perilous results. If this sounds like a garden-path sentence, that would be the most appropriate way to describe this film, because by the time we have finished Empire of Light, we are at a completely different location (metaphysically speaking) than where we anticipated, and unfortunately Mendes is not a strong enough director to deliver a film that doesn’t exactly deliver what it promises, turning it into a massive bundle of missed opportunities, which is perhaps the most polite description of this relatively dull and lifeless affair.

By now, we have all encountered these films that aim to celebrate the power of cinema, to the point where the market for these kinds of stories has become so over-saturated, it would take a truly innovative filmmaker to overcome the cliches that have enveloped what is steadily becoming its own genre (and as we see recently, not even Steven Spielberg was able to make something all that interesting with the concept) – and unfortunately, Mendes is not the kind of filmmaker in whom we can place all that much faith, since he has proven to be a competent director at best, someone who has earned a certain level of acclaim through his theatre work and a few well-constructed films, but has mainly relied on luck to keep his reputation afloat (such as being offered the opportunity to direct two James Bond films), rather than doing particularly interesting work. He is certainly not an unskilled director, and some of his works are quite inspired. Unfortunately, he is also someone who has not found a directorial voice that suits him, at least not cinematically, and has essentially resorted to being the kind of journeyman filmmaker who starts his career with his biggest critical success, and uses that to propel himself to two decades of decent but otherwise uninspiring work. Listening to him tell a story about the power of cinema is not the most exciting concept, since it never feels like Mendes himself is particularly interested in exploring that magical spark that many tend to gravitate towards. Empire of Light almost feels like it is more concerned with capturing the daily routines of the cinema staff and their regular transactions than it actually is interested in the art of cinema itself. There is a considerable lack of depth that underpins this film, and the moments in which it has to remind the audience (and by the extension itself) that this is a film about the power of cinema, often come across as having been shoehorned into the narrative, since it never feels like a film that pays too much attention to the actual details, which are most important in such a story. To his credit, Mendes does avoid reiterating the same hackneyed concepts that we see nearly every time such a film is made on this subject. Unfortunately, it is just replaced with another tenuous and frustrating cliche, which ultimately doesn’t do much to improve whatever unique perspective this film seemed to be implying it contained.

As someone who has never formed his own authorial voice (which is not a quality to be criticized – many of our greatest filmmakers are defined by their chameleonic abilities), Mendes has instead chosen to follow in the shadow of his directorial predecessors, even outright parroting them in some scenarios. In recent years, it has seemed like he has been orbiting around the idea of replicating a career similar to that of David Lean, arguably the most important British filmmaker to have ever lived (especially if you consider Alfred Hitchcock to have contributed more to American cinema), and while some may take a more cynical perspective on this idea, it is clear that there are some parallels between them, especially in the stories Mendes has opted to tell, and the manner in which they manifest on screen. It was debatable in 1917, which was narrative and conceptually ambigious enough to lend itself to multiple interpretations (a clear case of style over substance being a recurring flaw in contemporary war-based filmmaking), but it is unavoidable in Empire of Light, which is so blatantly trying to capture that melancholic spirit of pure human connection that was magnificently captured in Brief Encounter, it actually feels like it is directly borrowing entire concepts from that film, just filtering them through a different temporal and geographical milieu. The idea of two individuals meeting by chance, and forming a lasting connection that no previous or future relationship would ever be able to match is a concept that is as old as art itself, and it is not one that is exclusive to Lean (or rather Noel Coward, who originally conceived of the story that would eventually flourish into the timeless masterpiece that was Brief Encounter), so we can’t criticize Mendes for simply taking an idea that has been at the heart of the vast majority of love stories for generations and making it his own. Instead, we find his approach to the material challenging and unfortunate, with the overwrought emotion, contrasted with the socio-cultural aspect (which we are misled into believing Mendes actually understood – the film’s discussions of racism, as well-intentioned as they may have been, are deeply myopic and misguided, almost bordering on tone-deaf) and a sense of inflated self-importance, as if this was the only love story that ever existed across both racial and generational boundaries, all add up to a puzzling experience, the kind of uninspiring, overwrought drama that leaves the viewer thoroughly ambivalent in every way.

You would at least anticipate a film like Empire of Light to compensate for its meagre storytelling with strong performances, especially when a director as notable as Mendes is at the helm (and considering how he managed to cobble together an impressive assemblage of acting veterans for a series of one scene performances in his previous film, this was almost to be expected), since once you attain his status, you are able to secure nearly any actor, who will likely leap at the opportunity to have the chance to work with someone with as strong a reputation. This film does have a good cast, and the specific actors chosen are certainly not the problem. Instead, it is what Mendes gives them to do that leaves us disappointed. At the heart of the film, we have Olivia Colman, who is already consolidated as one of our most celebrated actors, and someone who is steadily taking her place as one of the more prestigious performers we have working today. She is also someone who requires a strong director, or else her performance could fall apart at the seams, since she is very much someone who believes in the collaborative process, but seems to defer to the directorial vision (likely more of a sign of her immense congeniality rather than her inability to define characters on her own – we’ve seen her create magnificent performances from the most paltry material in both film and television), and unfortunately Empire of Light just doesn’t do much for her. She is not miscast in the role, but rather the role is severely underwritten, almost as if Mendes threw together as many trite conventions about middle-aged women exploring their sexuality while teetering dangerously close to a complete breakdown, in the hopes that something would work. It is quite peculiar that on a film that most required a female voice to help bring this character to life, Mendes is the sole screenwriter, whereas in 1917, a film in which women are incidental to the point where they are almost non-existent, he collaborated with a female screenwriter – I feel like this is one of the reasons Empire of Light feels so extremely discordant when it comes to discussing femininity, because this is the life of a middle-aged woman as told by someone who viewed it as almost a melodramatic soap opera to be plumbed for overwrought emotion, rather than a real subject. The rest of the cast exists only to serve Colman, playing one-dimensional roles without any real depth – Colin Firth is playing against type as the sexually-deviant, manipulative villain, while Toby Jones is delightfully endearing as the only character in this film that seems to have any interest in cinema at all. Micheal Ward is tragically underused, existing more as an object of desire than as a character on his own, an awful decision that the film never entirely justifies in any form, other than giving him what appears to be a happy ending. For all the demands for Mendes to return to more character-based storytelling, Empire of Light was certainly not the strongest effort in that regard.

Empire of Light is a film that you can imagine worked better as a concept than it did in its final form. The idea of one of the best actors of her generation leading an ensemble populated by an array of veterans and newcomers, in a period piece directed by a filmmaker with a strong eye for detail, focused on the magic of cinema, had an abundance of potential. However, as is unfortunately the case with many films, this film proves that a good idea is simply not enough to sustain an entire production, and that there needs to be much more done to convey the sense of humanity and complexity that would supposedly be evoked from this story. Mendes doesn’t even direct the film poorly – the compositions are gorgeous (and credit must go to the legendary Roger A. Deakins, who proves that he is one of our greatest living cinematographers – it is a pity he had to squander his time on something as listless as this film, but at least we were given a few stunning frames as a result of his efforts), and the flow of the film had the potential to lead to something quite special. Instead, the flaws are in the small details – the fact that the film tries to tackle subjects around both femininity and racism despite being written solely by someone who has no personal experience with either of those subjects outside of being an observer. This alone prevents us from giving Empire of Light the benefit of the doubt, since it is very likely that, had Mendes just chosen to develop this idea with a more diverse body of storytellers (rather than chasing the boastful credit of being the sole writer and director), would have substantially improved this film and made its characters feel so much more complex and interesting, rather than being the most one-dimensional depictions of what an upper-class, white male director believes a love story between a mentally unwell, middle-aged working-class woman and an impressionable young black man two decades her junior would look like. It would have certainly been a much more compelling film than this, which just falters in every way from beginning to end. Empire of Light just proves that gorgeous imagery and an attempt at a soul-stirring story simply doesn’t get you very far when there is a lack of heart and soul, and as technically impressive as it may have been, the complete absence of any depth is essentially what prevents this film from being anything more than just two hours of pure frustration, disguised as transcendent, challenging romance.


One Comment Add yours

  1. James says:

    I have loved film my entire life. As a child, I hid in a closet in the middle of the night with a portable television to watch movies from an older era. As an adolescent, I worked to earn money to attend the cinema and return to see my favorites time and again. As a young adult, I would sleep following work and then catch the late evening show where the audience was small and the walk out of the auditorium was hushed with darkness and quiet.

    Now I watch streaming. My love for the art form has not made me blind to the fact that film is a dying art form. Cinemas are vile. People treat the auditorium as their home. They leave the squalor of their half-guzzled, quart sized sodas and greasy disposable tubs of oily. stale popcorn on the floor of the seating area for our shoes to smack when we try to make ur ways to our seats. The audience invariably talks, reveals plot turns to their guests who have not yet seen the film, repeat lines that were not heard, and speculate on plot twists. Their children who are not age appropriate for the content of the film fill the time kicking the chairs in front of them and asking to be taken to the toilet. And the toilet is repulsive. A slick pool urine spreads across the floor. The stench steals the breathable air.

    Empire of Love is a quite visceral depiction of this death of the flory days of cinema. Set in glorious movie palace of the early 20th century, the theater is in disrepair. Some houses are cordoned off while others are smaller and fail to offer the massive screens that made movies so iconic. The staff wear distinctive uniforms that are now threadbare and stained. The behavior of the patrons is cajoled by ushers and management who cannot afford to lose the income of any ticket buyer. Every view of the theater reinforces the death of what film was in its glory days.

    The story focuses on Hilary, a mentally ill employee who sleeps with the manager and a new employee. Assignations with each occur within the theater. They couple in an office or a closed cinema. Later rioters break into the locked lobby and destroy the aging decor and beat the employees. The disrespect for the cinema is palpable. Interestingly, the film is beautifully shot by noted cinematographer Roger Deakins. His artistry reminds us of the glory of film while capturing its decline.

    The minimal plot is as inconsequential as this cinematic failure. The quasi romance is merely a plot to hang this tale of slow loss and inevitable rot. At the end of the film, Hilary watches the classic film Being There, a political satire about how people delude themselves into believing a fiction because they want that fabricated reality so desperately. It is a fitting choice for a film about how those who love film deny its achingly slow death.

    When parting at the end of the film, Hilary presents her young lover a book of poems, High Widows by British poet Philip Larkin. Published prior to his death, the collection is a rather bleak array that seeks to find beauty in the ravages of despair, a fitting commentary on the perspective Empire of Light seeks to provide.

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