Sam Mendes’s humdrum ode to movie magic

Janice K. Johnson

Sam Mendes, Empire of Light, 2022, DCP, sound, color, 119 minutes. Hilary Small (Olivia Colman).

IF SAM MENDES’S VISION for Empire of Light was to pay tribute to the faded glory of moviegoing for the era of Covid and streaming behemoths, he could have stopped at the three-minute opening-credits sequence and released it as a standalone piece. Here, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s plaintive piano score plays as Roger Deakins’s camera observes the detritus of a multiplex in the morning: a turned-off popcorn machine, an unoccupied ticket booth, a dusty room stocked with projection equipment. Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), the duty manager at the Empire Cinema, on England’s South Coast, enters the premises and turns on the lights, revealing production designer Mark Tildesley’s gorgeous Art Deco lobby and the grandiose main theater’s velvet-and-gold trimmings. After changing into her work attire, Hilary looks moodily out the window before editor Lee Smith cuts to an exterior shot of the building, which rises romantically in the snowy seaside landscape.

For these few minutes, the contributions of Mendes’s unimpeachable collaborators are allowed to breathe. The rest of the movie isn’t so fortunate, as the early-’80s story Mendes has fashioned for this misty-eyed backdrop is a baggy, Mad Libs–style assemblage of socially important topics and awards-season clichés. (Mendes is the only credited screenwriter on Empire of Light, a first for his career.) Nutshelling its overstuffed narrative: Hilary, back at work after a vaguely referred-to mental health episode, endures the gross attentions of her boss (Colin Firth), who beckons her to his office for near-darkness sexual favors. Her doctor demeans her with comments about her weight and half-hearted inquiries regarding her state of mind. Into this malaise walks Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black student who lands a job at the Empire after being rejected from college. Stephen charms Hilary with his sensitivity—his first action is to care for a wounded pigeon found in the Empire’s deserted upper floors—and before long the two are intimately involved, meeting up in secret and bonding over their mutual status as outcasts in repressed times.

Mendes entangles his characters in weird likes and dislikes that don’t quite jibe with their behavior. Stephen talks about wanting to study architecture but never voices any thoughts on the breathtaking waterfront movie palace where he works. Norman (Toby Jones), a salty projectionist, blankets the walls of his office with glamorous headshots of Hollywood legends, yet doesn’t tell a story or share a fond opinion about a single one of them. Hilary, meanwhile, makes for an oddly amorphous heroine defined by randomly telegraphed traits. She loves poetry, pays no attention to movies, likes fireworks on New Year’s Eve, attends dance classes but not discotheques, and doesn’t read the newspaper. (Stephen reminds her of “Thatcher” and other minor details of the day.) Her dialogue, like most of the ensemble, tends toward two extremes: on-the-nose speechifying (“Shame is not a healthy condition”) and nebulous backstory detours (e.g., a remembrance of fishing trips with her father). In perhaps the most egregious example of the latter, Jones’s Norman begins a monologue by pensively lighting a cigarette and declaring, “I’ve got a son.”

If all this marks a failure of screenwriting imagination, just as dismaying is Mendes’s distractingly discreet approach to Hilary on a stylistic level. He offers no attempt to fully access or inhabit her headspace. There are no flashbacks to her apparently awful childhood, no dreams illustrating her fears and desires. Deakins’s camera doesn’t get close to Colman—as Hélène Louvart’s does in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Colman-starring The Lost Daughter (2021)—but is usually placed at a solemn remove, the better to admire the Empire’s handsome accoutrements and underline the character’s nervous body language. In lieu of an effort to conjure Hilary’s subjectivity, Mendes signals her unhappiness and lack of feeling with the usual shorthands: lonely baths, solo dinners, glimpses into the medicine-cabinet mirror. This leaves Colman with nothing to draw on and little to do. Often, she simply stands still and looks off beyond the frame.

With its largely static tableaux of melancholy souls stationed in a movie theater lobby, Empire of Light might sound like a complete reversal of Mendes’s 1917 (2019), a real-time World War I epic that presents itself as a single take. In fact, both movies suffer from similar shortcomings. Both aspire to an autobiographically informed resonance only to end up mired in an anodyne generality. 1917 concludes with a dedication to Mendes’s grandfather and his wartime stories, but there’s nothing vivid or specific about the personalities of the two soldiers who steer the narrative, and the movie’s unbroken facade only serves to drown its technical achievements in rote repetition. Watching the central duo of 1917 barrel forward through the trenches is strangely comparable to watching Hilary sample perfumes or build sandcastles.

Mendes has described Empire of Light in personal terms not just for its embrace of cinema’s “magical” powers but for its time and setting, which reflects his teenage years. But unlike such recent cine-memoirs as The Fabelmans or Armageddon Time, Empire of Light contains no adolescent onscreen avatar for its writer-director: The preoccupations of the era are examined not from a nakedly confessional standpoint but through a smoothed-over objectivity. Stephen criticizes Hilary for not being aware of the rise in hate crimes, but her politics are hardly explored, and it’s not as if the other members of the Empire staff—despite witnessing belligerent customers and National Front riots—engage in any greater discussion surrounding racism. Far from encouraging such uncomfortable and necessary conversations, the writer-director’s notion of looking back seems only to involve playing a handful of records he remembers well and changing out the Empire’s marquee and lobby posters every so often with a different period-appropriate classic (The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Gregory’s Girl), giving the film as much depth as the posters on a teenager’s bedroom wall.

Empire of Light opens in US theaters on December 9.

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