In the era where content is king, Sam Mendes still believes in moving pictures. “Empire of Light” is the proof. While the world was in lockdown these past couple years, Mendes let his imagination run to his happy place: a grand old English movie palace he dubbed the Empire Cinema. Thousands pass through its Art Deco doors seeking escapism, but Mendes is more interested in the employees — the projectionist, the ticket-takers, the box office attendant and so forth, who collectively form an ersatz family — whose stories, he senses, are every bit as interesting as the ones they show. And so he put them up on screen where they belong.
But “Empire of Light” is more than just Mendes’ homage to an endangered art form — in fact, it spends a lot less time valorizing the medium than you might imagine. He has assembled a terrific cast, trusting that these performers can go deeper than their dialogue makes explicit, whether it’s Olivia Colman (who can do anything) as the romantically frustrated theater manager Hilary or relative newcomer (and “Blue Story” breakout) Micheal Ward as Stephen, Mr. Ellis’ latest hire (in an unusually sleazy cameo, Colin Firth plays the boss).
The year is 1981, Margaret Thatcher’s in charge, and England is in turmoil in ways that will seem uncannily similar to today. Meanwhile, “The Blues Brothers” and “Stir Crazy” are keeping folks distracted. Mendes never comes right out and says that the odd team of workers were drawn to this job because they don’t fit in to the real world, but studying them, it’s hard to ignore that they’re all outsiders of one sort or another.
In Hilary’s case, her backstory is suggested but never revealed. We know she’s on lithium (which is a drug that’s not lightly prescribed), and that meeting Stephen inspires her to stop taking the stuff. There’s even a scene midway through where she snaps, destroying a sandcastle the two of them had been making together, because he made the mistake of asking about her exes. Meanwhile, Stephen dreams of becoming an architect, but as a Black man in the English seaside resort town of Margate, he has his hands full trying not to get jumped by hooligans and white supremacists.
The pandemic compelled so many of us to look in the mirror and pose existential questions about what we were doing and why. Mendes clearly had a lot on his mind, too, from race relations to mental health, and in the Empire, he found a container to explore them all. Too many issues in too neat a space, some might argue, but better that than the opposite. “Empire of Light” is what I think of as a “snow glove movie,” the sort where everything looks perfect, to the point of artificiality: the camera doesn’t wobble, the light is just right. If you were to walk the empty aisles, your shoes wouldn’t stick to the floor. But even within that aesthetic, there’s room for reality — and the deeper you get into Mendes’ story (the first screenplay the “1917” director has written alone), the tougher and more unpredictable it gets.
If it’s true that the movie really is too tidy, then that surely emerges from Mendes’ ongoing collaboration with DP Roger Deakins, who’s a master to be sure, but no longer someone who works on the intimate scale this project seems to want. The duo shoot in hi-def digital widescreen, which feels like the right fit during scenes where “Empire of Light” aims to emphasize the sheer grandeur of the Empire’s design — as when Hilary first takes Stephen upstairs to see the empty ballroom and unused screens — but feels less intimate a few scenes later, when they share New Year’s Eve on the roof and Hilary boldly steals a kiss.
The budding romance between them is surprising for any number of reasons: the age difference, the racial attitudes suggested in the town around them, the fact that Stephen loves movies, and she’s never bothered to watch one in all the years she’s worked at the Empire (no prizes for predicting that will change before the end credits). Hilary favors poetry to film and has no friends to speak of, whereas Stephen still lives with his mom and seems relatively naive on certain subjects. “No one’s going to give you the life you want,” she tells him. “You have to go out and get it.” In other areas, he has to educate her (and a few of us), as in a valuable walk-and-talk session following a run-in with a racist customer.
Hilary doesn’t seem to have any hangups about dating a Black man, but Stephen knows the dangers — as when he removes his arm from around Hilary’s shoulder when a white man boards the bus. Readers probably needn’t be reminded that such issues have hardly gone away, though they might not recall how tensions boiled up in 1981 England (obviously the reason Mendes chose to set the film then), with race riots in some cities and National Front mobs in others. “Empire of Light” climaxes early as that situation gets out of hand, trapping everyone we care about inside the lobby.
Can a century-old movie palace insulate people from the world? Not really, but it can bring them together — as music can, too, suggests Mendes, making a case for ska. (The film might just as easily taken place at a record store or nightclub, though there’s something meta-glorious about watching Colman watch a movie after a long stretch in which theaters were dark.) To the extent one could say the cinema is also a character, it may amuse you to know that Mendes shot in Margate, restoring (to an earlier state of neglect) a 99-year-old Art Deco beauty called the Dreamland — though the name would have been too on-the-nose had he kept it.
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