Review: ‘Empire of Light’ is ode to broken characters more than love letter to cinema

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Empire of Light'

For over 20 years, I’ve insisted that director Sam Mendes doesn’t miss: the family tragedy “American Beauty” (1999), the gangster picture “Road to Perdition” (2002), the Desert Storm flick “Jarhead” (2005), the domestic drama “Revolutionary Road” (2008), the Bond action flick “Skyfall” (2012) and the World War I single-take masterpiece “1917” (2019).

Well, I was finally proven wrong with “Empire of Light.” As much as I admire the film’s elite craftsmanship, the story is nowhere near as magical as “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). Based on the trailers, I was hoping for “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985) and instead got “Blue Jasmine” (2015). Instead of a love note to cinema, it’s more an ode to broken characters.

Set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, the film follows the employees of the Empire movie theater. Here, 48-year-old manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) suffers #MeToo advances from her very pushy and very married boss, Donald (Colin Firth), before finding a new intimate companion in the theater’s new 25-year-old usher, Stephen (Michael Ward).

No one doubts Olivia Colman’s talent. Her resume includes an Oscar as Queen Anne in “The Favourite” (2018) and an Emmy as Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown” (2019). Here, she erratically portrays Hilary’s mental health decline, demolishing sand castles and muttering to herself like a Thatcher-era version of “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974).

While her character is intended as a sympathetic victim telling off her boss, her ensuing decisions aren’t very likable. Rather than learn from the situation, she perpetuates similar misconduct against her young coworker. While obviously consensual, the consequences are barely explored regarding his new 20-something girlfriend Ruby (Crystal Clarke).

If Stephen were truly serious about his new relationship, he would be an open book about his past, giving Ruby the courtesy of transparency. Instead, he’s evasive. His mother Delia (Tanya Moodie) is the only one who knows what’s up, but even she keeps her cards close to her vest. She simply says, “He’s lived some life,” seeking grace after a look of shame.

Even so, Ward gives an impressive performance. The Jamaican-born actor won the BAFTA Rising Star Award after “Small Axe” (2020) and could earn an Oscar nod here. His reaction to race riots outside the theater lobby is heartbreaking, but it feels (at worst) forced and (at best) stale after Kenneth Branagh’s street riots and flickering projectors in “Belfast” (2021).

The best scenes come when Ward enters the projection booth, staring with wide-eyed wonder at the various moviestar posters and magazine clippings that line the wall. It’s here that veteran projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) articulates the magic of movies while showing him how to change reels when a circle appears at the top right of the screen.

Written by Mendes, the projectionist gets the script’s best monologue: “Film is just static frames with darkness in between, but there’s a little flaw in your optic nerve, so if I run the film at 24 frames per second, it creates the illusion of motion, the illusion of life, so you don’t see the darkness, you just see a beam of light — and nothing happens without light.”

That’s what I’m talking about. I craved more of these cinephile scenes. Film history is filled with broken characters staggering into dark theaters to escape life’s troubles like Mickey escaping suicide to watch the Marx Brothers in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986). This time, Colman watches Peter Sellers walk on water in Hal Ashby’s “Being There” (1979).

Such magic is lacking from “Empire of Light,” though cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Fargo”) shows Norman and Stephen through projection booth windows for aesthetically pleasing “frames within frames.” Notice how Norman (White) and Stephen (Black) appear on the left and right to mirror Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor on the silver screen.

Deakins also brilliantly captures the blue glow of the projector light emanating out over the audience. Once outside the theater, he captures the glow of the “EMPIRE” marquee at night and mesmerizing fireworks on the rooftop that would make anyone steal a kiss.

Likewise, Production Designer Mark Tildesley (“Phantom Thread”) delivers top-notch work, recreating 1980s England from the skyline to the boardwalks to the beaches. It’s all carried along by a wistful, timeless score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“Mank”), who consistently prove that they are arguably the best film-scoring duo working today.

And yet, despite amazing craftsmanship from such proven artisans, the end result didn’t quite add up for me. In full disclosure, I had a hard time watching the movie without picturing my own original screenplay “Cinemagic” about a movie theater on the brink of closure in 1946 America — until a magical package delivers iconic films from the future.

Granted, not every film about an old movie palace requires magical realism, but it’s highly possible that the constant mental comparisons altered my expectations as to what “Empire of Light” could be. Fine, I’ll fall on the sword this time, Mr. Mendes. It’s not you, it’s me.

Here’s hoping your work clicks for me next time.

After all, you rarely miss.

2.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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