Empire of Light

I have to say that I was disappointed in this film, but not nearly as let down as I thought I might have been. I try to avoid looking at other reviews before I see a film for myself, but the Rotten Tomato scores popped  up somewhere and when I was looking for guests for the podcast, a couple of preview statements on Lamb pages seemed to be discouraging. While they are mostly right, there are a few things to recommend the film, and I want to start with those.

Regular readers are aware that this site is sometimes driven by nostalgia, heck, that was most of the original purpose of the initial project, and I have continued that with a couple of other projects that you can find here. “Empire of Light” is set in 1980/81. Some of the films that get referenced are treasured favorites, from “All That Jazz” to “Being There”. Sadly, the movies mentioned get short shrift from the script and the promise held out by the marketing team is broken. The power of movies to transform lives is not really the focus of the story, no matter how luminous Olivia Colman looks while watching a film in a dark auditorium. The setting on the other hand does much to make up for these oversights. The “Empire” Theater is a glorious old movie palace, in spite of half the screens and a restaurant gone to seed. The glowing lobby, the red velvet curtains and the traditional auditorium seats, made me wish I was watching this movie in that theater.

Lighting Magician Roger Deakins does his usual fine work in making the images on screen look spectacular. From the Lobby of the theater, to the beach-side dunes, to the main character’s drab apartment, we get a feeling about how to feel because of how things look.   He also lights Coleman as the zoftig love interest in a way that highlights her mood swings very accurately. One moment she is sweet and longing, the next she is threatening and harsh. Colman of course does most of the heavy lifting for these moments, but the lighting and composition make it work really well as she descends into her pit. A sex scene that is meant to be off putting is exactly that, in large part due to the unflattering lighting of a dingy office with the scent of shame washing over us in waves of shadow.

Michael Ward, who is the second lead and who the story should really be about, also looks great on screen. He has a natural charisma and he plays his character of Stephen as a real person, surprised to find himself struggling with his life but drawn to the much older Hilary.  The problem is that screenwriter Sam Mendes, has given himself a schizophrenic story to direct. There are at least four plot lines that could be the spine of the story; the romance, the racial unrest, the me-too relationship and the miracle of movies thread. Unfortunately, they don’t all gel together, and some are so underdeveloped that they feel like plot contrivances rather than real moments in the character’s lives. 

See this movie for Coleman’s performance, Deakin’s paintbox, and Ward’s star suggesting turn. Just don’t get your hopes up too much. We aren’t going to finish watching this film and see a beautiful curtain close behind an ornate proscenium. Your multiplex may be nice, but it won’t create the warm feeling that going to the movies used to produce. Unfortunately, neither will this film. 

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