The Sam Mendes Drama Stars Olivia Colman as a Struggling Movie Theater Manager.


If you’re a fan of Olivia Colman who’d watch her in anything, Sam Mendes is calling.  The Academy Award-winning CBE-honored and knighted director of such major players as American BeautySkyfall, and 1917 has snagged the Academy Award-winning actress to star in his glorified student film, Empire of Light.  He’s very lucky to have her.  

As always, Colman is terrific.  Here she plays Hilary Small, the put-upon manager of a large past-its-prime movie house called The Empire.  (Its owner, played by Colin Firth, is the primary bane of her existence, frequently summoning her to his office for “private business”).  Likewise, her costars prove beyond reliable.  Michael Ward (The Old Guard), though, in the role of youthful theater employee Stephen, seems to be the director’s surrogate. His being Black adds a wrinkle to that theory (Mendes is not Black), but also gives this disparate film more to be about.  (Dealing with racism, added difficulty planning his future, et cetra).  This comparatively humble project is, I’ve gathered, another in the recent pile-up of filmmaker autobiopics.  (Is it?)  Set in a sleepy coastal town in England circa 1981, it’s fair to assume that somewhere far across the pond in the states, James Grey’s Armageddon Time is playing out at the exact same time.  

Empire of Light is one of those films that proves generally watchable in the moment.  That is, until the moment gives way to several cringe-inducing individual scenes.  One doesn’t envy Colman as her character must suddenly burst into a zero-to-one-hundred tantrum while having an enjoyable time building a sandcastle.  That contrived breakdown, however, pales in comparison to the embarrassment when she emotionally swings the other way later in the film.  I swear, if I see another shot of a character seated in a dark movie having a glorious emotional meltdown while illuminated from behind by flickering projector light… {Grumble grumble}…  Since it’s in every trailer and commercial for the movie, it can’t be considered a spoiler to mention that moment.  Granted, in certain films, that moment is better earned (Cinema ParadisoThe Purple Rose of CairoSaving Mr. Banks).  Here, not so much.  Empire of Light, like Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, is, despite its advertising, not so much a love letter to the magic of the movies as a coming-of-age story that happens to have movies in its periphery. 

It’s fairly challenging to point to any one thing as to what Empire of Light is actually about, much less what it might be a “love letter” to.  Seemingly made up of patched-together asides in its effort to be both Hilary’s story and Stephen’s story, the film sticks the landing in terms of being a semi-nostalgic though never glamorous series of remembered-through-haze/reimagined vignettes.  It seems like Stephen ought to be the main character, but it’s Hilary.  The intended contrast is a future wide open and anxiously awaiting next steps contrasted with a future roadblocked by ghosts of the past, internalized despondency, and mental illness.  The latter is an attractive stewpot for any actor, and Colman navigates it beyond respectfully.  (She is the best reason to see Empire of Light).  The finished drama, however, is the sum of its disparate parts, a ticket-tearer to a picture show more so than the picture show itself.  Despite ostensibly being about a movie theater (although this same story could basically play out in any place of public service business), we fail to be drawn to the titular light.  Is it right that we’re left in the lobby for so much of the running time?

Perhaps ironically then, one of Empire of Light’s strongest aspects is the way it cultivates and maintains its very particular about-to-rain humdrum throwback milieu.  Old posters.  Garish uniforms.  Cantankerous projection machinery that’s fully reliant on the hands of an expert.  Closed off parts of the building that are remnants of a long-gone affluent time.  Instead of social media and smartphones, the people in this story (played by Tom Brook, Tanya Moodie, Crystal Clark, and Toby Jones as a holdover employee from earlier times) had break room chatter and in-person bonding.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins sets aside the visual virtuosity he’s known for in favor of a (dis)quieting atmosphere.  Still, for better and for worse, any outsized moments of narrative saber rattling are few and far between.  If one were so inclined (and yes, this movie definitely has its advocates), it could be argued that it’s all in a coastal town, therefore it coasts. 

Mendes, in his varied and adventurous career, has already proven he can bring the goods to the movie theater.  Here, he’s somewhat interestingly (but only somewhat) opted to bring the movie theater itself to the movie theater, depicting all its forty-years-ago trials and treadmills in its daily routine of just trying to host screenings of Private Benjamin or Time Bandits or, the Empire’s biggest coup, a gala premiere of Chariots of Fire.  

The fire we see is courtesy of a projector demonstration given to Stephen by Jones’s character.  It’s the contained miracle of internal carbon rods ablaze only shielded inches from meters and meters of unspooling and re-spooling flammable (though no longer deadly nitrate) celluloid.  Mendes, by virtue of zeroing in on this accepted volatility of yore in both his original screenplay and with the camera, offers glints of bigger notions.  Still though, the vests are itchy, the shoes are stiff, and the clientele is ever the mixed bag.  With this, his first screenplay, he ingloriously takes us into this oh-so rarified experience.  And as such, we are left with little doubt about what it would be like, back in day, shuffling among the common folk, to work in a movie theater.