There’s no question that Sam Mendes is a talented filmmaker, with films such as American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Skyfall to his name. Known predominantly for his directing, his first writing credit came when he co-wrote the 1917 screenplay a few years ago, but his latest sees him on script duty once again. Set in the 1980s on the south coast of England, romantic drama Empire of Light takes place in around an independent picture house. Struggling with mental health problems, duty manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) forms an intimate friendship with new employee Stephen (Michael Ward), who is facing his own difficulties.
Thanks to the picture-esque setting and skilled work from legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film makes for a rich visual treat. There’s a comforting warmth to the way in which the cinema itself is captured, and the specific period details in the carefully crafted production design accentuate this beautifully. An opening act sets up a sweet and engaging workplace drama but as the plot progresses, the flaws in the writing come to the fore. Attempts to handle issues of mental illness and racial abuse feel very heavy-handed, and the narrative is stuffed full of complex societal problems that its unable to handle with the required care and attention. Some sequences are particularly ill-judged; like when a hate-fuelled riot spills over into their sanctuary of escapism, or a terribly devised ‘broken bird’ subplot serves as an inept metaphor for the damaged characters.
Colman gives a variation on her performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, but the portrayal of psychological trauma feels far less nuanced in this case. She and Michael Ward try their best to bring some humanity to the piece, but their romance never rings true and they’re let down by material that’s almost insulting to the sensitivity of the subject matter. Presenting a literal and metaphorical shining light to the film, Toby Jones is excellent as the team’s grumpy projectionist. Working as a homage to the classic Cinema Paradiso in moments, his arc conjures up a rose-tinted nostalgia for the big screen, channelling the ‘love letter to the movies’ theme that Mendes wedges in alongside everything else.
Empire of Light’s majestic aesthetics are sorely spoiled by the clumsy broad strokes of its screenplay. Sam Mendes should stick to directing only in future and leave the scripts well alone, as even a solid leading turn from national treasure Olivia Colman isn’t enough to salvage the film.