Sam Mendes, director of such wonderful films as “American Beauty,” “1917,” “Road to Perdition,” “Skyfall,” and “Revolutionary Road,” wrote and directed thr 2-hour love letter to the movies, “Empire of Light.” It is Mendes’ first attempt at scripting the films he directs. It shows.
Olivia Colman—the Oscar-winning actress of 2018’s “The Favourite”—plays Hilary Small, a theater manager of the Empire Movie Theatre complex, which her boss (Colin Firth), Donald Ellis, describes as “the South coast’s finest film emporium.” Filming was actually done in Margate, at Dreamland, and down the coast of Kent. (I was once an exchange student in Chislehurst in Kent.)
Micheal Ward as Steven, a 25-year-old Black man, comes to the Empire Movie Theatre to work. Steven and Hilary (Olivia Colman) begin a romance. Olivia is nearly twice Steven’s age, but they bond over saving a wounded pigeon. Perhaps it is Mendes’ intention to show how at certain times in one’s life, another caring concerned human being can serve as a life-line to help an individual through a tough time. In the case of these two individuals, each needs someone to lean on; Steven cares about Hilary, while Hilary cares about Steven.
Times are tough for Micheal because he is waiting to try to get into architecture school. He is living in a very prejudiced time associated with Margaret Thatcher and Skinheads and racist acts against minorities.
Times are tough for Hilary (Olivia Colman) because she recently had a nervous breakdown and was committed to St. June’s Mental Health Hospital. Historically, she had a bad relationship with her father and feels she is being taken advantage of by men, including her boss at the theater, Colin Firth, who views her as “a nutter” and “unemployable.” Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) had agreed to take her on as an employee at the theater, because he would “keep an eye on her.” He took advantage of her frail mental state to demand sexual servicing, and Hilary rails against all men, saying “All these men will have their comeuppance.”
Cheating on his wife is but one of the boss’s failings. Donald will be spectacularly and publicly called out by Hilary for his two-timing of his wife during the premiere for “Chariots of Fire.”
The film seems to have at least three themes that it tries to weave into a coherent screenplay. One theme is simply the love letter to movies which Mendes rightfully calls an escape. The second theme, (which doesn’t blend well with the movie theme), is a denunciation of racism. Steven (Micheal Ward) and Hilary bond over helping heal the broken wing of a pigeon and begin an unlikely affair. The Black/white divide comes to the fore as a theme when a group of miscreants breaks into the theater and beats Steven to a pulp. He ends up in the hospital, with Hilary paying him visits. There, Hilary meets Steven’s Mom, who recognizes that they have a genuine affection for each other that has sustained them during rough times.
The last theme in the film is that having mental issues is not the individual’s fault. As Steven (Micheal Ward) says to Hilary upon learning of her diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, “It’s not your fault. It’s a medical condition.”
The acting by everyone is top notch. Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward are ably supported by Toby Jones as Norman, the theater projectionist, Colin Firth as Donald Ellis, and Tom Brooke as Neil. The music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfect, slow piano chords that fit the themes perfectly. The cinematography is wonderful, especially the shots of New Year’s Eve fireworks with Steven in the foreground. The theater is also a marvel and the set and art decorating are wonderful.
So, what’s wrong with the movie? It follows the theme that Mendes says unites all his movies: “All my films are linked by similar concerns, if you look below the surface. They’re all about one or more people who are lost and trying to find a way through.”
One critic went way out on a limb and said it was the best thing Sam Mendes had ever done. I disagree.
Not only did Mendes win an Oscar (for “American Beauty”)—his very first directorial job— he has done so many great films that this one, by comparison, while a nice character study urging understanding for sufferers of mental issues and acceptance of all races without prejudice against the backdrop of the love of the theater—-just doesn’t work. The disparate themes, as scripted, did not gel.
The idea that each individual is going to go on with his or her own life by film’s end was logical. But the screenplay had a hard time fitting such disparate elements into one homogeneous script. Since this was Mendes’ first solo screenwriting outing, could that be the problem?
The movie premieres December 9, 2022.
Meanwhile, the Austin Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and I’ll be reviewing from there.