By Christian DiMartino
Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is a curious experience. The movie begins well, features splendid performances, is beautifully filmed by Roger Deakins, is immaculately scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Everything appears to be in its right place, but ultimately it doesn’t hang together as a movie. It’s like looking at a completed puzzle with a number of the pieces missing.
That’s not to say that there’s a central mystery at the film’s core. But the central flaw of the movie is interesting. Because this is a movie that is saying and doing a lot, but much of it doesn’t really convince. This is a film that is trying to say a lot, but it can’t fully seem to get the words out. Because of this, the end result is a movie that you can sense the aspirations, but also, you can’t. Mendes obviously wanted to tell this story for a reason, but what was the reason, and what story is he ultimately trying to tell?
What’s notable about Empire of Light is that this marks Mendes’ first solo screenwriting effort. Mendes is of course the brilliant filmmaker behind American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, 1917, Skyfall, etc. 1917 was the first script of his he’d actually participated in, and while it was relatively straightforward, he had a collaborator. Empire of Light finds him on his own, telling a story about the magic of movies, racism in England, mental illness, with a romance at its core. It’s both a movie that can’t seem to make up its mind, but also, with a polish or two to the script, it could’ve stuck the landing.
Olivia Colman, who has been on a roll since she won her Oscar for The Favourite, is of course great as Hillary. Hillary is a lonely woman who works at a British movie theatre called The Empire in the early 80s. She performs sexual favors for her married boss (Colin Firth), and soon catches the eye of a new employee named Stephen (newcomer Micheal Ward, also doing strong work). Her and Stephen form a bond, and soon find themselves having an affair, often times in an abandoned ballroom in the theatre. He also soon discovers that Hillary might not be well.
That’s kind of where my description stops, because the movie gets to this point and then it’s not really sure where to go. The first half of Empire of Light had my attention. Actually, the whole thing admittedly did, even when the movie wasn’t working. Mendes is an artist and a true filmmaker, and the movie is at least competent. It’s just… it lacks focus. Mendes has taken a slew of ideas and plot points and thrown them in a blender. A lot of them are interesting, but they don’t fully mesh. Watching it, it makes you wonder where the inspiration came from. Because he’s not a mentally unstable English woman, nor is he an African American, so it’s just kind of tough to gauge where this material came from.
We get the mental illness storyline, and that doesn’t feel successfully developed. There are a few scenes here that, despite being well acted, ring a little false. Like on their own, they’d be fine, but within the confines of this movie, it doesn’t gel. We get the depiction of racism in England, in terms of the Stephen character, but Mendes kind of fumbles that ball too. Perhaps the problem here, among others, is that Mendes seems to have plots for multiple movies going at the same time. Multiple, rather different, movies. It’s like having three orchestras playing different songs in sync. Because then he tries to add a “movies are magical” angle to it, but it’s all so underdeveloped that it doesn’t feel right.
This film had its premiere at Telluride, where it was poised to be an Oscar contender. Out of the gate that seemed to be the case, but the air left that balloon and it’s since gotten quite the lashing. This isn’t a film I hated, because there is actually stuff in here that would normally make it worth seeing. It just doesn’t fully come together in the way Mendes probably hoped. A polish or two to the script would’ve really helped here, because as is, it’s a movie that’s trying to do… something. It’s just not always sure what that something is.
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