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Searchlight Pictures

Empire of Light (2022)

At a certain point, blockbuster filmmakers must get bored. If you have, over the course of your career, demonstrated that you can handle both small budgets and colossal ones, high romance and shooty-action stuff, talky teenagers and morose adults, then what mountains are there left to climb? If you’re Sam Mendes, you direct your own screenplay and call it “Empire of Light.” It’s a love letter to cinema, of course; while he might be winning a bet he made with himself he’s still career-minded enough to keep his pet project in awards consideration. But while he was at it, Mr. Mendes decided to give cinematographer Roger Deakins a few tough marks to hit as well (backlit night fireworks, lamplit rooms at sunrise and the inside of a projectionist’s booth are just three examples). The irritating thing is that Mr. Mendes and Mr. Deakins are so skilled they could have succeeded blindfolded. They are two of current cinema’s greatest auteurs, who know how to stage an image in a way that elevates the plot. “Empire of Light” is so casually gorgeous it’s easy to overlook its flaws.

It’s the early 1980s and The Empire is a crumbling cinema in Margate, a small town with a good beach, and we all know what “seaside resort” is code for in British cinema. The Empire is managed by Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth, finally returning to bastard roles with a verve we haven’t seen from him since “Shakespeare in Love”), with the depressed and troubled Hilary (Olivia Colman), who never watches the movies, as deputy manager. Norman (Toby Jones, basically playing his character from “detectorists” and long may that continue) is the projectionist, and the ushers include Neil (Tom Brooke), Janine (Hannah Onslow) and new hire Stephen (Micheal Ward). Hilary gives Stephen a tour of the building; the two screens used to be five; and there’s an entire upstairs bar/restaurant area that has been given over to the pigeons. Stephen discovers one with a broken wing, and sacrifices one of his socks for a bandage that will help the creature heal. Hilary is impressed; and the weight of the metaphors crashing into the seafront will go missed by nobody. What Hilary and Stephen start getting up to is certainly not missed by Neil, giving Mr. Brooke a brilliant showcase for his many differently nuanced disapproving and/or supportive looks. Janine is a walking, talking pop-culture time capsule with great hair and not much else to do.

Mr. Mendes should have gotten some help with the script, for he stumbles badly in his treatment of the core couple. Hilary is an unusually complicated person – Ms. Colman could also do the part blindfolded, not that she’s ever phoned in a performance in her life – and the movie is profoundly sympathetic to all of her struggles, especially the ones that are self-created. By contrast Stephen’s big issue is that people in 1980s Britain are massively racist; and poor Mr. Ward’s talents and empathy are swallowed by a character arc that’s mostly limited to reacting to that boring violence. He certainly doesn’t get a showcase comparable to the scene in Hilary’s flat; and it’s not because Mr. Ward isn’t a good enough actor. This sloppiness is especially unfair when it comes to Stephen’s mother Delia (Tanya Moodie), who is stuck in a supportive-caretaker role despite having an outside impact on the film. (At the Toronto International Film Festival, Mr. Mendes made a point of praising Ms. Moodie to the skies, which only served to emphasize how under-developed her character was.) The movie makes it plain young Stephen is going to escape, one way or another; he’s working at the theater to get together money for university, while the older Hilary is stuck, both in this dull town and in her own mind. But at least new movies come through the Empire every week with their fresh delights. Mr. Deakins ensures everything looks nothing less than spectacular; and thankfully Mr. Mendes has the grace to ensure Hilary doesn’t learn any lessons from Stephen’s struggles; she is too kind and empathetic already; and anyway her hands are full with all her own problems. The grand finale, which will send true cineastes rushing to rewatch “Cinema Paradiso,” is designed for film awards committees, and will probably knock a lot of socks off. But still. Imagine what this could have been if Mr. Mendes had decided to really gamble on what he was capable of. “Empire of Light” needed a lot more human feeling to be a truly great movie. It’s beautiful, and it’s close, but unfortunately no cigar.


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