For its closing night Sunday, the Virginia Film Festival screened “Empire of Light” at a packed Paramount Theater with an introduction by Virginia Film Festival director Jody Kielbasa. The movie was written and directed by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes, known for his previous work on “American Beauty” and “1918.” This film marks Mendes’ first project as both director and solo screenwriter — a quality felt especially through how personal the project feels.
It is spring 1981, and the Empire Cinema is hosting the premiere of “Chariots of Fire.” Hilary Small, played by Olivia Colman, works at the small English seaside arthouse who sets the schedule, works the concession stand and complies with her boss’s uncomfortable requests for illicit sexual affairs.
In the midst of her depression and repetitive dull routine, a young Black man named Stephen, played by Michael Ward, begins working at the Empire. Hilary is enamored by his positivity and demeanor, and a fleeting romance takes hold of both of their lives in unexpected and touching ways.
“Empire of Light” has many strong elements, the most striking being its cinematography and sweeping soundtrack. The film looks and feels as if it was entirely shot during sunny magic hour — every scene exudes an ethereal glow and is sensationally accompanied by its majestic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The almost otherworldly display is one that audiences can’t help but be drawn into, especially during the characters’ most vulnerable moments.
The aesthetic allure of the film provided by award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins is carried along by an all-around praiseworthy cast. Colman especially shines in the role of Hilary, playing the character with brilliant melancholic layers that provide the movie with its best moments.
Ward also proves to be a dynamic costar, able to compliment Colman with subtle but powerful glances and gestures that are both endearing and heartbreaking. Colman and Ward’s chemistry ultimately brings their individual characters, distinctive struggles and romance to life — a delight to watch unravel.
However, the film’s contents do not completely live up to its visuals and the talent of its cast. “Empire of Light” feels almost lackluster as a story because the plot is buried far too deep under the social commentaries and tributes to the craft of filmmaking Mendes attempts to take on as a screenwriter. Hilary’s depression spirals and Stephen faces rampant racism — however, these major conflicts meant to drive the plot further are sidelined for the sake of trying to introduce other themes, and neither issues are given closure before the credits roll.
With the threads of themes touching on racism, mental illness, sexual harrassment and working-class struggles so loosely tied together, the film feels like four different stories forced into one. While each holds enough weight to be their own movie, the ideas that Mendes so badly wants to explore lose their significance when put together. By its end, the convoluted screenplay feels almost like a compilation of half-developed concepts.
This is not to say that “Empire of Light” is a bad film. While motifs are not fully fleshed out and the writing fails to materialize into anything tangibly worthy or profound, the movie still stands as a love letter to cinema. At its heart is a romance that takes place in a movie theater — written with both wholesome humor and deeply intimate moments that feel nostalgic given the period appeal of 1980’s England. If nothing else, Mendes’s ode to film is a heartwarming reminder of the joy, comfort and necessity of the silver screen experience that manages to cast a spell over those who can look past its faults.
At its best, “Empire of Light” is cinematic art deco that can be screened in a theater to be admired. But for those who didn’t appreciate the art of filmmaking in the first place, the movie has little to offer. It may even be written off as a boring and incoherent disappointment, especially coming from the highly regarded Hollywood director that is Mendes.
While the big vision behind the film eventually becomes lost in its own muddled sense of purpose, Mendes’ passion for cinema can be unequivocally felt through the big screen. By the end of its runtime, audiences are left to grapple between admiring the movie Mendes clearly wanted to make and accepting the one that was given.