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MOVIES: Empire of Light - Review

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Sam Mendes has recently been drawn into a chase of getting that second best picture win – on the back of American Beauty in 1999, it’s pretty evident that 1917 was a best picture front runner for much of its tenure in the lead up to the Oscars that eventually saw Parasite winning. Empire of Light is more Oscar-bait than 1917 – but rather than the slew of Oscar bait films that we’ve had this year – be they Bardo, Belfast or more – Empire of Light wisely substitutes the director self-insert and a film about ‘cinema’ in favour of being a film about the power of theatres; and the working class (how Colman could afford that apartment and worked in that cinema, I'll never know) that inhabit them – its best moments are when it’s The Office for cinema employees – as someone who spent two years working in at a cinema – this was instantly a highlight for me. I’ve had that conversation with other colleagues about the worst thing that you’ve found in a cinema (a condom left behind after New Mutants, sick after Black Widow); but when the actual plot kicks in, Empire of Light becomes even more messy and scattershot than it originally was.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a memorable score that’s easily the film’s highlight, subdued for them yet emotional at the same time – capturing the power of the projection of that “little beam of light” that tricks your brain into seeing it’s a moving image. The film points out the difference between theatre workers and cinema goers – they get told it must be so good to watch movies all the time for free; but you’re often too busy working you don’t get to see any – and they’re often only doing it for the smallest of wages. The dynamic that Mendes creates between the employees at a small arthouse cinema in 1980s England is something marvellous at its best – drawing together employees from different walks of life who bond over the struggles of the job; Toby Jones plays a projectionist; and around him are the equally old guard – Olivia Colman’s Hillary Small plays a woman on the verge of recovery and living a life very much alone, friendless – coerced into a quite frankly, bizarre dynamic with her manager, the married Mr. Ellis played by a despicable Colin Firth – who gets her to meet her in his office to give him a handjob – in a rather confusing tonal shift where the film feels like it’s turning into something wilder; but at the same time – it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to commit to being a romp or a largely safe crowd-pleaser instead. This best sums up the dynamic between the film – Hillary gets romantically involved with the younger Stephen, played by an excellent Michael Ward – in a fairly accurate depiction of how easy on the job connections are formed between employees who work in the same job for even short amounts of time – but nothing is done with it that you haven’t seen played out before; and that by extension has a knock on effect on the whole film.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is excellent – the stellar shots looking out on the pier as the New Years’ Eve fireworks are unleashed are something of a marvel; yet the best moments are the day to day life where his work isn’t needed as much. The sense of discovery and wonder of falling in love with movies isn’t Empire of Light’s main focus – the back half of the plot gives way to the wider issue of racism in the UK at the time – this was a government led by Thatcher – and the film’s moments where it mentions The Specials and music like it (also finding room for a Bob Dylan needle drop) are much appreciated – but it’s clumsy, simple and threadbare – not tackled with the depth, nuance or care that it needs to succeed – feeling rather one-note without the kind of heart that it really justifies in part due to the decision that the narrative is almost squarely focused around Olivia Colman’s Hilary – and it’s a rare weak performance by Colman in the lead role – not bad, Colman can never be bad – but you’d be hard pushed to put Empire of Light as her greatest triumphs. The film makes the odd decision to almost use shots looking up at her that you’d expect to be used to frame her as a villain – and the complexities of the character are treated as moments of humour at times that can often feel inappropriate – and speaking of inappropriate laughter; some scenes drew laughter from the crowd where I’m not sure there really should have been.

It doesn’t help that Empire of Light feels like something out of Lifetime at times; or even something out of The CW with an older cast. The moments where Stephen and Hilary nurse a wounded pigeon back to health are eye-rollingly familiar; and it’s telling that this is Mendes’ first solo attempt at the script – whilst it makes the odd big bold swing, it’s far too caught up by trying to tell as many stories as possible: a restrained, less bloated approach would’ve salvaged something here. The fact is – all these stories have been told before; and told better (and sometimes worse, too, but that’s beside the point) – and whilst it’s a smart misdirect from the Empire of Light trailer to avoid letting on what it’s really about, having now seen the film – I still couldn’t tell you.

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