“Empire of Light,” reviewed: Sam Mendes synthetic paean to film magic

Writer-director Sam Mendes’ new film Empire of Light, which centers on the employees of an English cinema in the early 1980s, belongs to a genre of its own: cooking show cinema. Mendes seems to have given himself a list of mandatory ingredients and develops the film to fit them all, albeit clumsily. There’s no intrinsic problem with flashy invention or a deliberate cinematic collage, whether it’s with the Marx Brothers or the New Wave. The problem with Mendes’ film lies in the effort to combine the pieces in a way that feels natural, a kind of artifice engineered to be almost invisible. It is a plastic that presents itself as organic. The film suppresses its authentic parts, never lets its drama take root and grow, never lets its characters come to life.

Olivia Colman stars as Hilary Small, the so-called manager on duty at a spectacularly set cinema in a seaside town on the south coast of England. (The film was shot in Margate.) She is on the verge of middle age, and her loneliness seems to weigh on her. She lives alone, she eats alone, she seems to have little social life outside of her cordial dealings with her co-workers. At the beginning of the campaign, shortly before Christmas, she recently returned to work after a stay in a psychiatric ward; At the doctor’s office, she tells him she feels “numb,” which he attributes to the lithium she’s taking. (She lies to him because she has family and friends to talk to.)

Hilary is also having an affair of sorts with her boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), the theater’s general manager, who is married. She’s a reader with a trove of poetry to quote, seemingly a literary person who goes about her daily role of overseeing ticket sales, handing out popcorn and candy, cleaning the theater, tidying Ellis’ office, and the other half dozen or so to organize, working hours and tasks of employees appear out of place. She doesn’t seem bored, she doesn’t seem miserable – she just seems mechanical. Then Ellis hires a new employee to help with ticket sales and other practical matters, Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward), a cheerful and eager young man whose elegant wit and easygoing curiosity sets him apart from the rest; he and Hilary become fast friends and then lovers. (He is the first to continue the friendship; she is the first to show romantic feelings.) Stephen harbors an unfulfilled ambition to go to university to become an architect. Hilary encourages him to make his dream come true, and thanks to him, she begins to come out of her shell.

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Stephen is Black, a fact that doesn’t matter among his white peers, who are friendly and welcoming, but is a fact that generally turns out to be startling. He is confronted at the theater by a patron who makes racist remarks, and the town is stalked by white supremacists who, encouraged by British nativist politicians and angry at black Brits’ demands for equality, harass Stephen in the street and become increasingly dangerous . Meanwhile, his relationship with Hilary begins to take its toll on both of them as their peers begin to suspect something.

Hilary reiterates the kind of relationship she and Ellis had — not just one among colleagues, but one between a superior and a subordinate. That — along with (maybe) the racial difference, along with (maybe) the age difference, along with (maybe) the fact that Stephen is still grieving over a failed romantic relationship with another woman, along with (maybe) his academic ambitions — comes between them and threatens to throw Hilary into crisis mode. This crisis, a tale of past troubles and horrors, a harsh childhood and subsequent abuse, dreams thwarted and anger smothered, is the emotional core of the film.

Hilary is something of a classic character: a sad sack. In American films, a sad sack is a sociopath waiting, a ticking time bomb preparing to explode, while a British sad sack is just a human machine going through the motions of life, a ticking clock just ticking down. American society, thin with formalities, puts little pressure on loners, while British life, being more formal and conscientious, can structure lives that otherwise benefit little. That’s where “Empire of Light” is at its best; By treating Hilary as a compressed figure, externally shaped by social forces, Mendes attempts (and manages to a limited extent) to show not the figure but the forces themselves, the form into which the figure is compressed was, deformed, tormented. But the dramatic result of depicting form rather than character is the lack of detail in the characterization – which wouldn’t be a problem if the film wasn’t a character study.

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Mendes builds up the film mainly in dialogue scenes that often begin promisingly, in which his protagonists are trusting and self-confident, struggling to express themselves and beginning to find the strength to do so. But they are usually cut short (whether by Mendes’ editorial will or by the sheer limit of his own screenwriter’s imagination) once the scene provides the tidbits of information to fit the dense dramatic mosaic. It’s a film full of maybes and uncertainties, and the characters only reveal enough cards to keep viewers at the table guessing. The film plays ambiguously on Hilary’s illness, with significant symbolic but frustrating drama: Mendes suggests that it is the unchallenged assumptions of social life, of gender relations, that are ailing – that what Hilary endured is sufficient to quell any sensitive depressing and confusing woman enough to take stock of the dire situation. It is a rhetorical notion that the film juxtaposes with the blatant racist pathologies plaguing England; By establishing an age difference between Hilary and Stephen, Mendes also proposes a shifting generational approach to endemic abuses and systemic injustices.

The motives and premises of the film are its strengths. Its utter absence of detail, nuance, inner workings and complex expression are its flaws. Its thematic connection to the world of film is simply incongruous, though the theater itself is a virtual character in the film — the building is something of a populist modernist masterpiece, and its slender but slab-like sections and asymmetrical squareness are peppered with art deco -Details and lavishly comfortable furnishings. Hilary has little to do with movies, but a big one with the building itself — and with the old graces it haunts an upstairs ballroom that used to host dances. (The theater’s marquee still advertises this once-in-a-lifetime attraction.) Her association with it remains undetermined (yes, again). As for the cinema itself, its fame is epitomized by the theatre’s longtime projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), who decorates his booth with the iconography of classic films and their stars. Norman talks about the equipment of 35-mm. Projecting with love and initiates the inquisitive and tech-savvy Stephen into that love as well.

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Empire of Light takes its title from the wry illusions of Magritte, but reflects none of her self-deprecating humor or conspicuous delight in deception. Rather, it builds into a grand, nostalgic, sentimental paean to the art of popular films, without irony, without historical awareness, without self-questioning of the art form itself. Mendes doesn’t think about the connection between the Hollywood films (and the British hits) according to the era and the social crises he diagnoses, between mass media and mass politics, between the mores of film and the nature of private life, and does not indicate them in public discourse. Instead, Mendes nostalgically connects to a fading and troubled past, without ambivalence or self-doubt, as if he holds the recipe for her redemption. ♦

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