Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 15th, 2022
Empire of Light (Sam Mendes, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.
There is a lot to recommend in Empire of Light, the new film from writer/director Sam Mendes (1917). Chief among the plusses are the performances of Olivia Colman (The Father) and Micheal Ward (Beauty). Less impressive is the script, which takes on many different themes and can’t quite keep up with any of them. Still, the design and look of things keep our eyes pleasantly occupied even as our minds may wander.
It’s Christmas 1980 in the town of Margate, located on the northern shore of England’s Kent County. The middle-aged Hilary (Colman) works at the Empire, an Art Deco movie theater screening the hits of that time, including The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz. Coming soon is the future Oscar-winner Chariots of Fire, a film that manager Donald (Colin Firth, Mothering Sunday) is proud to announce will have its regional premiere at the Empire. Not bad for a sleepy locale.
When not on duty, Hillary offers the married Donald occasional sexual favors, though more out of boredom than anything else, and with a certain lack of agency given his position over her. She has a not-so-distant past of indeterminate mental-health issues, about which we gradually learn through visits to her doctor, comments from colleagues, and the lithium pills she takes every day. Life takes routine shape, though new events will change that, starting with a new hire, Stephen (Ward).
Stephen is Black, the child of Jamaican immigrants whose father decamped a while ago and whose mother is a local hospital nurse. He has dreams of becoming an architect, but has somehow found himself stuck in place post high school, unable to motivate. It’s easy to see why he might feel so down, given the rising climate of racism and xenophobia in the air. This is Margaret Thatcher’s England, after all, and times are as tough as ever, with unemployment on the rise. Always, in such cases, popular resentment turns to easy targets.
Slowly, Hillary and Stephen draw closer, bonding over their appreciation for the Empire’s long-abandoned upstairs ballroom which speaks of a glorious history. As skinheads roam the street, their friendship becomes something more romantic, even while Donald grows more insistent for Hilary’s attention. Things soon come to a head in every way, bringing Hilary’s mental health to a potential breaking point.
If all that seems like a lot to dramatically juggle, it is, which no amount of beautiful imagery from veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) can quite make up for. Mendes ends up giving short shrift to his important themes, especially the mental-illness angle, though even the racism gets only surface-level treatment. And though there is a nice cinematic moment at the end involving Hal Ashby’s 1979 Being There, even the movies are really just for background. In this temple of light, the nuance of truth is too often shrouded in shadow.