EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Melancholic, but bland
Sam Mendes is a great director and that’s enough – he created the groundbreaking American Beauty (1999), the touching Revolutionary Road (2008), added a powerful element to the legend of James Bond, and four years ago delighted the world with the war epic 1917. As it turns out, even great directors they are trapped by their own visions, and the Empire of Light is an example of such a trap. In creating his “love letter to cinema”, Sam Mendes fell into didactic and overly melodramatic tones.
Some time ago, the British magazine Empire published a short article in which Mendes described the process of selecting the location that will become the eponymous “empire of light” in his latest film – a magical provincial cinema that is the center of the universe for a group of long-term employees. The choice fell on the Dreamland cinema in the seaside town of Margate, which has been closed for years, and it must be admitted that this location – of course after appropriate modifications and significant refreshment – looks magical in Empire of Light. All those who remember their first visits to local studio cinemas from before the era of multiplexes will surely feel exceptionally moved – the Empire of Light is a place of celebration of the art of film, and although the attendance is not impressive, the cinema is chosen as the location for the local premiere of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. This event will be a huge challenge for the entire cinema team, but it is not the grand premiere that is the axis of the plot of Mendes’ film. It is the relationship of experienced usher Hilary (Olivia Colman) and new cinema employee Stephen (Micheal Ward).
Between the two characters, who differ in almost everything – race, age, experience – a feeling arises, which for Hilary suffering from mental problems becomes a ray of hope in a cruelly lonely life. However, the romantic relationship between an older woman and a young man is not the only thread – Mendes decided to also weave social problems into his film, and since the story takes place in the early 1980s in a provincial British town, racism is still very strong there in the social mood. Stephen falls victim to numerous humiliating gestures from both cinema customers and random passers-by. Moods escalate, but… basically, it is not known why. The racial conflict has absolutely no effect on the dynamics of the story or the relationship between Hilary and Stephen. The motivations of the characters do not change in any way after the man’s unpleasant experiences, and the finale of the film also does not seem to be determined by them.
Sam Mendes made this film primarily for himself – on the one hand, it shows a love for the institution of cinema as a place to create tastes and personalities, on the other hand, Mendes shares with the viewers observations of a social nature, which are certainly somehow related to his youth spent in Great Britain. The problem is that this individual, personal view leads him astray in didacticism and excessive exaltation – although in Empire of Light we will find beautiful frames and moments of genuine emotion, the dominant feature of this film is melancholy shallowness. Olivia Colman, one of the most outstanding actresses of recent years, tries her best to bring the character of Hilary to life and make her credible, but the beautiful aphorisms that Mendes puts on her lips torpedo all her efforts and make her heroine a pretentious tool in the hands of a director lost in her own vision. Like Steven Spielberg in The Fabelmans, Sam Mendes is tempted to say too much and too literally for his film to be treated in terms of a profound experience.
Empire of Light emanates extraordinary warmth – the team working in the title cinema consists almost entirely of tolerant and kind people (Colin Firth has a rare opportunity to play a negative character here), standing in opposition to the mindless racist mob that roams the city in one of the major scenes of the film. But this is not the wise, comforting warmth straight from the best feel good movies – rather the warmth from the anecdotes of an aged aunt who tells about “once upon a time”. I have the impression that today’s viewers do not need such wisdom.