Writer/director Sam Mendes has always been a filmmaker that captures a momentary mood, and often leaves enough of an impression to last minutes, hours, or weeks. Though never longer than the end of a contested awards season, as his 1917 would attest. What he did for the average war movie was, at the time, stunning, impactful, anxiety-inducing, and easily the grandest cinematic spectacle in 2019. His follow-up may befall to a similar endgame, however: it doesn’t stick in the memory for long. Empire of Light finds Mendes back to his familiar habits, fumbling the ball with a much quieter and intimate tale, in such a way it couldn’t completely stand out in the long term. A shame, when the scenery remains postcard-esque, and a capable ensemble balanced.
It’s the turn of the early eighties. Moviegoing is a far different affair than what we know now. Multiplexes hadn’t entirely caught on. Ticket prices were easily affordable. And the grandest of single-screen palaces were easy to locate. Among them was the Empire, situated on the shores of Margate, a Londoner’s seaside go-to. It’s managed to survive on loyal customers alone between both its screens, but it is still different from its bustling heyday of years past. The ambition was replaced by cost-cutting, with plans to double its auditoriums, along with a dining hall abandoned. Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), the manager, still opts to steer his ship through these rough seas, anticipating a major film premiere with star attention.
A gala presentation of Chariots of Fire puts all the upbeat staffers well on notice. Even routine-driven Hilary (Olivia Colman), looking solely to keep her head down and not make waves as the theater’s duty manager, battling her mental health struggles and never allowing for a moment’s break. Say, to sneak into the auditorium, and witness what the marquee’s promoting. Not at all an easy road, until she falls for incoming usher Stephen (Micheal Ward), a college-age student at a gap in his studies. She’s quizzingly enamored by this youthful pupil, the two nipping off to that closed-off top floor whenever possible. What begins as a flowering love story, with a mildly obscure British history lesson thrown in (punk-era racial upheaval), evolves into a fair, if not particularly enigmatic, dual character study. Both Hilary and Stephen earn equal dues, confronting their demons in one-on-one conflict. And in the case of one, it’s a tougher war of the mind.
And this is a skirmish well raised in Hilary’s psyche, confronting the dark side of schizophrenia with a certain grace, though not entirely probing. A case of delicate subject matter that should be Mendes’ forte, winding up struggling not to tiptoe about. There’s no clear platform where Sam can lean his thematic focus, that much remains obvious throughout the picture. It can never stay on a singular story beat longer than a couple of minutes before wandering into the next. Just as a given expression of mood lands on its feet, it takes a sudden, slightly sour shift.
The smaller pieces in Mendes’ ensemble puzzle wind up burned in this rapid-fire reel change. We may not see much time with them to affect proceedings, though their hearts still pour out with fondness for their work. And for the finite art of presentation, now taken for granted by way of automation and minimal human contact. Firth’s Ellis, shrewd and deceptive as he appears, still proves how moviegoing is a snapshot of humanity, where people converge, big crowds or small. Chief projectionist Norman (a sage Toby Jones), and fellow ushers Neil (Tom Brooke) and Janine (Hannah Onslow) show their loyalty and professionalism toward every customer. Along with concern toward their flighty co-captain.
And were it not for Colman’s hardy rigor, embodying a character on the edge of manic, the endeavor would be lost in its confusion. It’s a plum role for the ever-dependable actor, each one treated like a new challenge. Here, we see Colman daringly balancing optimism, scorn, and disintegration like the juggling of apples from a tightrope. She charts the course when Mendes stumbles, prepping Ward’s runway in her wake. When he enters the picture, it’s with a blazing trail of charm and vexation, knowing fully that Margate is a hostile stepping stone before higher aspirations. Ward proceeds with ignited passion, gentle yet sprightly, in spots of romantic chemistry and of personal trial.
Either side equates to near-spectacular character introspection. Mendes could never shy away from that opportunity, particularly in his scripts. There lies a buoyant density in building up individual weaknesses, melding them into a shared struggle, then recognizing healthy coping strategies. Therapy, interpersonal contact, or the simplicity of a cinematic escape. Empire of Light can represent all three, held consistent by Roger Deakins’ subtle eye for natural color and layering, and the always ambient musical allure of Reznor and Ross. Though it’s far from the starry celebration of cinema one would’ve hoped. It’s drastically quieter, slower, patient to click with a mood and at the same time impatient to round up every thread.
It was a cold shock in the ice to see Mendes return to a more intimate form of filmmaking. An auteur who shows his appreciation for the art form, and its ability to alter, or save, lives. And a shock that leads to a slightly reluctant, never boring judgment of character and mental fortitude. Empire of Light is nowhere near a perfect gem in Mendes’ playbook, yet still present in the fleeting moment it will have with audiences. Finitely, this disjointed story still works well, just not spectacularly so. At best, it does exemplify how life can’t always be a movie, no matter how desperately we’d want to relive that magic. At its worst, it’s still a touching diatribe of personal graft, worthy of a rainy-day matinee. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Empire of Light opens in Seattle (Pacific Place, Thornton Place) and Bellevue (Lincoln Square) December 9, expanding on December 23; rated R for sexual content, language and brief violence; 119 minutes.