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.
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 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.