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Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light’ ambitious but uneven — Play It Again, Tim

Written by Tim Miller

Sometimes a filmmaker will try to jam too much into one movie.

That’s the case with “Empire of Light” (R, 115 minutes, in theaters). It’s directed by Sam Mendes, whose resume as a director includes “American Beauty” (for which he won an Oscar), “Road to Perdition,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Skyfall” (easily one of the best James Bond films ever) and “1917.”

“Empire of Light,” starring Olivia Colman, might have taken its place with such Mendes gems, but it’s too ambitious for its own good.

Maybe the problem is with the screenwriter, who happens to be Sam Mendes. He has only received a screenwriting credit for one previous film, the Oscar-winning “1917,” and “Empire of Light” represents his first credit as sole screenwriter. Set mostly at a movie theater in a seaside town in Southern England around 1980, Mendes’ tale tackles racism, sexual harassment in the workplace, mental illness and the redemptive power of the cinema.

Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward star in “Empire of Light.” (Searchlight Pictures)

Granted, it isn’t beyond one’s imagination that all of these things could play significant roles in a person’s life, even all at once. But in the attempt to make powerful statements about all of these themes, “Empire of Light” not only comes across at times as forced, it loses much of the dramatic impact it might have had with a little more focus.

Still, middling Mendes, even subpar Sam, is better than most films.

Having a star of Colman’s caliber certainly helps. The Oscar winner (for “The Favourite”) plays Hilary Small, manager of the Empire Cinema. The former movie palace has seen better days, but its owner, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), hopes that an upcoming, star-studded premiere screening of “Chariots of Fire” at his theater will turn things around. (“Chariots of Fire” is one of many real movies from the era that are referenced in “Empire of Light.”)

Middle-age Hilary seems relatively content, though hardly joyful with her life. The married Ellis routinely calls her into his office for perfunctory sex. She oversees and helps her fellow workers in the box office, at the concession stand, taking tickets, etc. Afterward, she’ll go to a restaurant or head home, alone.

Then a charismatic young Black man, Stephen (Micheal Ward), joins the all-white theater staff. Despite their age difference, Hilary and Stephen see something special in each other, a quality of character. Soon they begin a secret romance. And soon issues related to racism and mental illness come up.

Though not everything in the film works (especially an emotional showdown during the big premiere), there’s much to savor.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been nominated for 15 Oscars and won two (for “1917” and “Blade Runner 2049”), helps create a nostalgic mood, whether in the theater or out in the (often dreary) town off the water. And Mendes and company create some especially riveting moments, such as when Hilary sits motionless in a chair as a policeman batters down the door of her flat. Then there’s the camaraderie of the theater workers, who genuinely care for each other (even the standoffish projectionist – played by Toby Jones). The film is at its best at when it depicts friendship and kindness.

Finally, there are the two leads. Colman pulls off a challenging role that requires a range of emotions from quiet to explosive, while Ward (“Small Axe”) holds his own as the engaging catalyst of change in Hilary’s life. *** (out of four)

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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