Sam Mendes takes a stab at writing and directing a film based around one of his parents, Empire of Light explores the world of the 1980s through the eyes of his mother played here by Olivia Coleman as a duty manager in a cinema that is experiencing a massive downturn thanks to the impending recession. While the film starts as an exploration of cinema and the movie-going experience in the 1980s before digital projectors, it clumsily tries to add in a love story, mental health issues through schizophrenia and racism that end up making this film feel like a complete mixed bag that overstays its welcome. It’s not all bad, fortunately, cinematographer Roger Deakins is on hand here to deliver one of the best visual feasts when it comes to cinema possibly ever made that does more than enough to distract from the disjointed story.
Set in 1981 in Britain, depressed worker Hillary (Coleman) is the duty manager of the Empire Cinema, a once proud four-screen cinema with multiple stories with restaurants, bars and a breathtaking rooftop. Due to the impending recession, only two screens on the bottom floor are now open, with the higher-up floors left to the pigeons. The manager of the cinema Mr Ellis (Colin Firth) runs a tight ship with projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and the cinema attendants Janine (Hannah Oslow) and Neil (Tom Brooke) When a new attendant Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young black man who has recently moved into town with his mother,a relationship starts to form with Hillary as her disease rises to the surface.
There is so much to love about this film, the first hour is magical. Taking you through this beautiful old cinema that has left its top floor in disrepair while still operating. The breathtaking shots of the cinemas, the wooden seating, the plush red velvet curtains and wood carvings from the original structure are a wonder to look at. This goes hand in hand with the incredibly moving score from Trent Reznor that soars along with the sweeping shots from Roger Deakin’s palette.
It’s a shame that all of this comes incredibly undone by the story. It starts out ok, exploring the cinema’s history and the inner workings of the team there. The hint of possibly reopening the top floor when the cinema gets a premiere invitation for Chariots of Fire with local politicians and celebrities, however, all of this quickly comes undone when the sudden rise of Hillary’s mental illness sends the story on a different path and the town gets an influx of white supremacists trying to chase Stephen from their seaside town. While the subject of Schizophrenia is certainly something to be explored in cinematic stories, this story does a disservice by presenting it and then quickly sweeping it under the rug. It’s quite jarring and the story never quite recovers.
The actors involved all bring their A-game here. Coleman commands the screen delivering a quiet and commanding performance. Similarly, Ward is the out-of-towner trying to fit in with the locals while getting into college. They both deliver great performances individually however they can’t sell their relationship or make you feel invested enough that it is real. Coleman is able to switch up her quiet Hillary persona into the loud and angry version of her character. Firth is creepy enough to be the general manager that everyone is afraid of. His interactions with Coleman as their affair rampages on is intensely uncomfortable to witness and Firth seems to be having fun with the role. Jones is perfect as the projectionist, conveying his love of the machinery of the projectors and his shrine of movie stars that surround his office is one of the highlights of the movie.
Empire of Light had the potential to be a phenomenal love letter to cinema film, regrettably, due to some odd story choices and chemistry issues it doesn’t live up to its initial promise. Fortunately, the exemplary cinematography from Roger Deakin commands your attention as the details of the cinema and the surroundings are showcased beautifully. This is in hand with the score from Trent Reznor allows Empire of Light to be something more, something beautiful rising above the mediocrity of the plot.
Empire of Light is now showing in cinemas thanks to Searchlight Pictures & 20th Century Studios.