Arrgghhh! Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light is exactly what we don’t need right now; an earnest, virtue-signalling slice of nostalgia for times that never existed. We’re ticking off a list of today’s issues (racial violence, toxic, abusive men, mental health, the death of cinema) while making sledgehammer points about them all in a way that’s bound to be a massive turn-off from critics and audiences alike. Mendes early-80’s drama is part of an ill-timed wave of movies nostalgic for the cinema of the past, and ends up contributing one more shovel of gravel on the coffin of the tradition of enjoying big-screen entertainment.
So let’s start with the good, and Roger Deakins’ top notch photography; Empire of Light opens credits over a series of beautiful shots of an empty cinema, an art-deco structure that exists for real here in the UK in Margate. Expectations are raised, then quickly squashed as we see put-upon cinema employee Hilary Small (Olivia Coleman) suffering from a questionably consensual encounter with her sleazebag boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth); witnessing Firth’s coital begging for Hilary to ‘**** me off’ should make sure anyone’s 2023 year in cinema gets off to the worst possible start. Small hopes for bigger things, and they arrive in the form of Stephen (Micheal Ward) an impossibly sensitive, poetry-reading black employee who soon ensnares Small in some improbably 50 Shades-level bump and grind in the shut-down parts of the 4-screen multiplex. Small has been prescribed lithium as a result of a previous breakdown, but as a big charity premiere of Chariots of Fire looms, Small finds it hard to avoid exposing her boss’s infidelity….
Mendes has a solo writing credit for the first time on Empire of Light, but credit is hardly due; Empire of Light’s script is clumsily written, name-checking issues but without much empathy or sensitivity. The Empire’s employees seem to have zero interest in the films that they screen, even though the posters and clips we see (Stir Crazy, The Blues Brothers, Being There) suggest a golden age; any one of the films referenced have more entertainment value than this. Ward can barely shift the needle with an underwritten part that only works as an example of Key and Peele’s ‘magical negro’ trope, and Firth provides little depth to his obvious white-male hate-figure. Coleman does the heavy lifting for the lot of them, making Hilary Small a relatable and sympathetic figure even if the narrative sags under rampant wokeness; a gang of racists attack the cinema in a wildly contrived resolution.
At a time when we need reasons to entice people back to the big screen, Empire of Light comes out with the weakest argument for cinemagoing yet; we should go because we feel sorry for the people who work there? Such lavishly upholstered miserabilism is a loser right out of the gate, and while Coleman is worth seeing in a role that seems ideally suited to her substantial range, this shabby Empire of Light never looks like striking back for British cinema.