Sam Mendes really missed going to the movies during the pandemic, now we all have to pay

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Empire of Light
Opens Dec. 23
2.5 out of 5

The magic of cinema. We keep hearing that trope as producers, distributors and exhibitors try to convince us to come back to the theatre. Yes, it can be magic. I’ve seen Vertigo with Kim Novak in attendance, and Manhunter with the cast of Hannibal sitting behind me.

But movie-going can also be a frustrating experience, with electronic devices everywhere and a growing disregard for basic etiquette. Eventually, a critic just gives up and starts sitting in the front row to avoid others, or else only goes to theatres that enforce some semblance of decorum (normally art houses).

Alas, some of our most esteemed auteurs still earnestly believe in that trope. Steven Spielberg just gave us his version in The Fabelmans, in which a young Stevie gets his mind blown by The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and picks up a camera to recreate what he saw. Now, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) is here to show us how much better movie palaces were compared to the cookie-cutter architecture of the multiplex. Tell me something I didn’t know.

The overstuffed plot, set in a coastal English town in the 1980s, goes like this: Hilary (Olivia Colman, The Favourite), the frumpy manager/concessions attendant of the Empire, finds herself stuck in limbo. Embroiled in a joyless affair with the theatre owner (Colin Firth), Hilary yearns for company, yet does nothing to change her lot of life. As luck would have it, a young black man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the staff as an usher and hits it off with Hilary.

Mendes, who also wrote the script, likely deemed that the ”ships passing in the night” narrative wasn’t enough, so he saddled the characters with extra baggage. Hilary struggles with mental health issues, while Stephen is a frequent target of the town’s racists. Never mind the 20-year-plus age difference between them, having someone in your corner after years of fighting alone makes all the difference in the world for these two outcasts.

The film’s shortcomings can be by traced back to the writing, not Mendes’ forte. Strong performances by Firth and Toby Jones (as a persnickety projectionist) almost make you forget Empire of Light is an ingrown toenail away from tragedy porn. And while Colman is a talented, well-rounded performer, she continues to be wasted in frumpy matron roles (see The Lost Daughter, The Father) that she can do in her sleep.

As her paramour, Ward is a revelation. And it’s likely we’ll see more of him in the future. But the real star is cinematographer Roger Deakins: his golden hues warmly wrap Mendes perfectly composed shots of the theatre overlooking the ocean. Not a shade is out of place.

Rather than inspire people to go back to the theatre though, Empire of Light frames visiting your local cinema as an activity of yesteryear. That’s the problem with exploiting nostalgia: it’s filling, but ultimately has no nutritional value and can backfire easily. ■