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film review

Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.Parisa Taghizadeh/Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios

  • Empire of Light
  • Written and directed by Sam Mendes
  • Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward and Colin Firth
  • Classification R; 119 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Dec. 9

There is a certain odour wafting out of writer-director Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light that approximates the stomach-churning scent of scalding, rancid butter ladled atop stale popcorn. The kind of nasty snack they might serve at the Empire, the seen-better-days English movie house where much of Mendes’s melodrama takes place, and where any nostalgia over the flickering image goes to die.

A dreary and fundamentally rotten thing from a filmmaker who should know better by now, Empire of Light desperately argues that the societal evils of 1980s England (but, you know, also today) – racism, sexism, homophobia – can be cured by a little trip to the cinema. The magic of movies is a cure-all, don’t you know, love? But even the most ardent supporter of the theatrical experience will be compelled to inject Netflix into their veins after sitting through Mendes’s patronizing and soulless trip to the lobby.

It is 1981 and the mood inside and outside the two-screen Empire movie palace is damp, especially for poor Hilary (Olivia Colman), the duty shift manager who is well-liked among staff but lives a life as dreary as the coastal English weather. Except for the odd times that she is urged to fondle her boss (Colin Firth) in the dark of his office, Hilary’s heart is empty. Why she has never even, for reasons that defy basic character logic, sat down and watched a movie inside her own place of work! Oh dear. Someone get this poor woman an improbable love interest, post-haste.

Colin Firth and Micheal Ward in Empire of Light.Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures / 20th Century Studios

Ah, here we go: Hilary, meet Stephen (Micheal Ward). A decades-younger ska-loving Black man who is a far more interesting creation than anyone else onscreen here, Stephen is quickly and efficiently reduced to a walking narrative device to illustrate the emptiness of Hilary’s life, and the injustices visited upon ostensible outsiders in Thatcher’s England. Just how nakedly does Mendes telegraph his themes? First he has Hilary and Stephen nurse a wounded bird to health after it broke its wing (no word of a lie). Then he has Stephen attacked by skinheads who burst inside the cinema, hooting and hollering like animalistic extras from just one of the movies that the Empire might itself exhibit.

There are many other threads in Empire of Light that, if tugged on with the lightest of touches, completely unravel the film’s purpose of being – which come to think of it feels like the result of Mendes catching a staging of Annie Baker’s The Flick with a wad of wax stuck in his right ear and a patch covering his left eye. From the projectionist played by Toby Jones who regularly pops up to vocalize what everyone onscreen and the audience is already well aware of – movies are an escape, of course! – to its eye-rolling treatment of Hilary’s mental health, Empire of Light is the most noxious kind of faux-benevolent “prestige” cinema.

Colman to her eternal credit muddles through Mendes’s motions, and Ward’s charm leaps above the hurdles that the script sets up for him. Firth can also play an uptight jerk with the best of them. But Empire of Light is interested in itself, not its performers. Mendes’s film is only important because it declares itself to be so from the start, with the erstwhile American Beauty director so utterly confident that by preaching to the cinephile choir from inside their own church, he will be protected from any charges of apostasy.

Maybe, then, it’s not rancid butter that’s wafting out of Empire of Light. It could just as well be sulphur.