One of an auteur’s favorite things to center their films around is the art of cinema itself.
Filmmakers started off their careers as moviegoers and these experiences color and impact everything about how they write, direct and produce their own work.
Sam Mendes’ extensive theater and filmmaking background come to fruition with his latest film, Empire of Light, a languishing, self-indulgent look at the world of cinema through the eyes of a box office manager at the Empire Theater in south England.
It’s a movie that just screams out “CINEMA!” at the top of its lungs even though it doesn’t really understand what exactly that entails or means in the context of the story Empire is trying to tell.
At the core of its storytelling, Empire is a simple tale of a shy older woman played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman, who befriends and later falls for a black coworker played by Micheal Ward while she is simultaneously coerced into a sexual relationship with her boss.
Though he’s credited as the lone screenwriter, Mendes isn’t terribly concerned with the narrative at all. It simply serves as a basic structure to center his motif-driven feature on cinematic wonder during a formative time in the early 1980s. This makes Empire exceptionally inaccessible for some audiences who may struggle with the looseness of the narrative and lack of significant plot, yet at the same time, Mendes may draw in certain viewers with the painstaking care to which he showcases the meticulous craft of cinema.
Structurally, there’s a significant issue relating Colman’s character to Ward’s in a cohesive way as Mendes would rather show than tell audiences how their unlikely romance begins.
Empire is more of a think piece than a considered theatrical experience, ironic given how many films are shown within Empire, most notably the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire which plays a pivotal role in the second act.
Colman tremendously creates layers to her Hilary, especially as the film lingers on and audiences come to learn more of her backstory which complicates her relationships with everyone around her.
While it is not as bombastic nor driven as efforts by Cate Blanchett in Tár or Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Colman has the ability to be equally as transfixing and carry the overall narrative forward with a performance that’s among the year’s best.
Her primary counterpart in Ward’s Stephen is equally as subdued with a quiet earnestness and sentimentality that makes him somewhat a compelling character although much like James Gray’s Armageddon Time, Empire struggles to find the right tone when it comes to racial and societal implications it’s making and a pivotal scene to open the final act really isn’t properly foreshadowed well enough to balance with the overall tone of the film.
The supporting cast led by Firth as the theater head and Toby Jones as the projectionist is solid but given light character work due to Mendes’ very loose brushstrokes on plot development.
Without question, the MVP of Empire is the dynamic cinematography from director of photography Roger Deakins, a master at his craft who make every second of Mendes’ film a joy to watch even when the storytelling doesn’t live up to the same expectations.
He is especially adept at using light in all its forms, both in bright open spaces and tight confining moments as well as the contrasting nature of pitch-black darkened theaters to illuminate the picture coming through the Empire’s projector.
Many of the moments that work best in Empire come from Deakins’ ability to capture Mendes’ artistic vision for what cinema truly means to both moviegoers and the people who work to bring these cinematic tales to life.
Though Empire of Light certainly isn’t for every moviegoer, ardent cinephiles willing to overlook the film’s structural shortcomings and live in the broader pen strokes of Mendes’ vision will find the film to be an intriguing experience in theaters.