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. 

link to podcast:

The Favourite

I am new to the films of director Yorgos Lanthimos, who has been highly praised for a number of his earlier films. I don’t know how representative of his style this movie is, but I can say there are certain things in this movie that seems to be unique to the movie and were clearly director’s choices. Most of those flourishes are at the base of my reservations about the film, so I may be hesitant to sample his other work. Between the praise and Award talk about this movie, and the highly entertaining trailer, I was expecting something a little more light and maybe traditional. There is a core to this story that I think would make a fine film in another director’s hands, but in Lanthimos grip, the movie becomes a bit “arty” and pretentious.

Deserving of high praise, regardless of what I thought of the rest of the movie are the three lead actresses. Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, but especially Olivia Colman, deliver effective performances. Stone manages to run the table from naive, open innocent to secretive and manipulative with just a little bit of alteration in her demeanor. Weisz is coiled danger and iron will from the start of the movie and even as she becomes more sympathetic, her persona does not change. Colman as Queen Anne, gets the widest range of emotions to depict from the screenplay and she manages to make us sympathize with a needy, neurotic and selfish woman who is clearly beset by emotional damage from earlier in her life. At times she is charming but can instantly turn cruel and dogmatic. Her emulation of physical pain but also physical pleasure is marvelous. Even when she is costumed and standing or being wheeled around, most of the acting work is in her facial expressions. That is an incredible accomplishment when you see how the movie is shot from low angles and wide images.

So I mentioned that I have a couple of issues with the director choices. Let me begin with one of the most obvious ones, the fish eye camera work. In many of the scenes set in the Queens bedroom or study, the initial view is a distorted image that inflates the center, reduces the edges and keeps most of the image from being focused. This is an unnecessary choice that draws attention to the film directing rather than the story. It is an indulgence that took me out of the events occurring every time it came up. A second issue with the film and the director is the use of Chapter cards to organize the story into discrete parts. Some of this may be in the script, so Lanthimos may not be entirely responsible, but they basically serve no purpose. If, like in “Pulp Fiction” the chapter stops helped organize the time sequence of the story, or if the captions emphasized a theme for a sequence, then they may have been a use for them. Sadly, this was not the case. Words and sentences from each sequence are randomly chose for the transition slides and they mean NOTHING! They neither highlight or make comment on the events we are seeing, they are simply plugged into a random spot to break up a narrative. Something that is certainly a directors choice is the use of fonts and spacing on those transition slides. Once again, it is a choice that draws attention to the director rather than the scene. Like a cinematic e.e. cummings, Lanthimos screws around with the visual image of the lettering, to make it distinctive, but also harder to read. cummings may have had a reason for his predilection, but I cannot fathom what the director was trying to accomplish here.

The movie is also filled with crass sexual references and visualizations. Certainly the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara takes the inferences from the notes of the Real Lady Sarah to heart. The story includes completely superfluous moments of Abigail manually satisfying her husband on their wedding night and Lord Harly delivering salty descriptions of women and participating in a homoerotic game of dodge-ball featuring a nude man and fruit. Given the instability of the Queen and the sexual references, I was thinking that this film felt a lot like “The Madness of King George” with porn.

Dramatically, there is a solid story to be told about how favoritism is sought, manipulated and influential in the royal court. It may be that the court had sexual intrigue and back stabbing, but all of that is presented as the surface level of interaction here, rather than a secret and subliminal process. When the words come right out of the Queen’s mouth “I like the way she puts her tongue in me”, you know that this is not a subtle form of palace intrigue. The views of men about women in the time might be backwards and reprehensible, but the film makers reinforce those ideas with the way women are depicted here. Instead of a story about female authority and power in an era dominated by male chauvinism,  “The Favourite” focuses on the very things that men might believe about women, their pettiness and emotional cruelty to one another. Those are the things that seem to be at the base of political instability, at least according to this movie. The Pyrrhic victory of one woman is a lesson in the futility of women being in charge. It is emotionally successful as a epitaph, but it is an impolitic message to convey to a contemporary audience.