EMPIRE OF LIGHT
(director/writer: Sam Mendes; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Lee Smith; music: Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross; cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary), Micheal Ward (Stephen), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Toby Jones (Norman), Tom Brooke (Neil), Tanya Moody (Delia), Chrystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Batestype of ), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis), Ron Cook (Mr. Cooper), Justin Edwards (Jim Booth), Hannah Onslow (Janine); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Pippa Harris/Sam Mendes; Searchlight Pictures; 2022)
“Even though Mendes flames out without reaching the light, his film in the end tastes almost as delicious as those bon bon ice cream treats I used to enjoy in movie theaters.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Oscar-winner for American Beauty, Brit filmmaker, Sam Mendes (“1917″/”King Lear”), is the sentimental writer-director of this nostalgic and dreamy period drama, that brings back memories of wistful days that might have been more grandeur than now. Its story tells of loneliness, sanity issues and a distressful workplace romance set in 1981, in a British seaside town that has a beloved elegant art deco movie theater called the Empire (which the film pays tribute to). The once regal cinema has turned seedy and acts as a metaphor for how London society has also changed.
Mendes grounds the film in realism (but more in a way like the zany movie “Gregory’s Girl” than any of Mike Leigh’s realistic worker-related films) and reaches out in loving ways to touch the people who are living through the Thatcher depressing times and her mirror-like hard-line right-wing Reagan type of conservative government.
The Empire’s middle-aged assistant manager is the troubled, poetry buff, loner–Hilary (Olivia Colman). She’s in charge of a working-class motley crew that includes cranky but artistic projectionist (Toby Jones). The newly hired employee is the amiable and more adventurous college-aged Black guy Stephen (Micheal Ward). Hilary, who was just released from a mental hospital, and needs lithium to function, is engaged in a secretive affair with her manager boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth).
Soon a friendship between Hilary and Stephen blossoms into an unrealistic sexual romance, as through him she becomes more aware of the things around her and how racist things are in town. But things don’t go smoothly the more she gets involved with her young Black lover, and Mendes tries meshing together the troubles in the country with the workplace, and finally with the problems of relationships between opposites. It’s too ambitious a dive in such murky waters to come up with a clear message, as Mendes would have fared better just taking the Empire theater as the story’s grist.
The photography of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins is beautiful to behold; the soundtracks of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens stirred up forever memories in my soul; and even though Mendes flames out without reaching the light, his film in the end tastes almost as delicious as those bon bon ice cream treats I used to enjoy in movie theaters.
REVIEWED ON 12/11/2022 GRADE: B–