In the 23 years since his debut feature American Beauty, Sam Mendes has put together a fairly sturdy filmography – a few hits, a few misses, a couple of paychecks, etc. – without ever giving us a really clear sense of who he is. He’s not exactly a journeyman; he has a recognizable style, thanks primarily to the frequency of his collaborations. But it’s easy to think of him as a hired gun, since, for most of his film career, he didn’t write his films. He only recently attempted to add that to his skill set, co-penning 2019’s 1917 and now taking his first solo screenwriting credit for his most personal film to date, Empire of Light. His ambition is perhaps more admirable than its outcome.
The setting is the Empire Theatre, a glorious two-screen movie house in Thatcher-era England, where Harriet (Olivia Colman) is the duty manager. Middle-aged and mildly dissatisfied, she has no real relationships to speak of, aside from occasional, awkward sex with the theater’s married manager (Colin Firth) in his office. And then a new employee arrives; the cheerful Stephen (Micheal Ward). They don’t have much in common; he’s a much younger, much warmer Black man. But they keep spending time together, on and off the clock, and before either of them realize it, their relationship is both secret and physical. (There are quite a few HR violations in this particular story.)
It is Mendes’ rather rotten luck that his film is coming out in such close proximity to Steven Spielberg’s “love letter to the movies” / memory play of his teen years, The Fabelmans, though the two pictures’ similarities are mostly on the surface: a few lines about living out your dreams, a speech explaining the mechanics of the “motion picture.” They both use the love of cinema, to varying degrees, as window dressing, and just as The Fabelmans was more about the dissolution of a family, Empire of Light is chiefly concerned with this romantic relationship that just happens to have occurred in a cinematic workplace. The main difference between the filmmakers’ approach to the material is that Spielberg had the good sense to hire a Pulitzer winner to help him write his.
Colman is very good, always giving it her all; mark, if you will, the way she says “shit” after their first, midnight kiss, the brave face she puts on in a breakup scene, and how she falls apart the second she’s behind closed doors. But Mendes’ script and approach keep hanging her out to dry. Her first sign of mental duress, a breakdown while destroying a carefully built sandcastle, should pack a wallop – but it’s played at too much of a remove, with the camera as spectator, rather than participant. She gets up to give an unsolicited speech at a black tie premiere, the biggest thing that’s ever happened at the Empire, and it’s deeply uncomfortable (and beautifully played). But the big confrontation that follows feels overwritten and overdone, so broad that it verges on sitcom territory.
It’s all downhill from there. The turns the character is forced to take are too wild to be credible, so by the end, she feels less like a character than a construct. Stephen tries to help her, and she waves him off: “I am not your patient!” she bellows. “I am not some problem to be solved!” The question, by that point, is whether the movie agrees.
There are things here to recommend – Toby Jones is just perfect as the theatre projectionist, holding court and pontificating in the break room, teaching Stephen, with split-second accuracy, how to change the reels during a show. And Mendes’s regular cinematographer, the great Roger Deakins, has a ball shooting this beautiful space (pay close attention to the framing and lighting of those office hook-ups, which are somehow, simultaneously, both sexy and sad).
But most of Mendes’s attempts to address race are clumsy, and a skinhead riot in the third act reads like a failed attempt to do a Do the Right Thing; it’s too heavy, and the picture all but topples over. For long stretches, Empire of Light just barely holds together. By that point, it pretty much gives way.