If everyone keeps telling us that the film industry is in trouble, we can start to believe it. Despite streaming, COVID, and the concentration of these pesky kids, things are actually going better in the cinema than ever – the number of screens in the UK now exceeds the heyday of the 1950s. But nostalgia, however, is a bitch.
Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917) portrays a ruined picture palace as his main star in Empire of Light, a beautifully shot, clumsily written drama that is riddled with empty tragedy, mourning an era that never really existed. The film takes place in a gloomy seaside town of the 1980s, where all the problems are just a box of popcorn, not a solution. The film simultaneously touches on all important topics without touching on any of them.
The Empire Cinema is the faded pearl of the South Coast, and the middle—aged duty manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) is the faded pearl of the Empire Cinema. Spending her lunch hours suffering from a joyless romance with her boss (Colin Firth), and taking lithium on weekends to take solo ballroom dancing lessons, Hilary desperately needs a friend.
Luckily for her, new assistant Steven (Michael Ward) shows up just at the right time. Unfortunately for him, he is young, black and lives in Thatcher’s Britain. When Hilary and Stephen’s forbidden romance begins to blossom, Mendes begins to catch BAFTA bait. Use oppressive metaphors about the magic of cinema (and about a little orphan pigeon with a broken wing who lives on the roof…) and a superficial glancing hint of intergenerational trauma, loneliness, depression and real racism. By the time Toby Jones’ grumpy old projectionist starts offering little pearls of winking wisdom, it’s hard not to feel that all of this makes the trailer so much better than the movie.
What a shame, since this is one of the most beautiful films in recent years. Elegantly shot by the experienced cinematographer Roger Deakins (1917, “Skyfall” and most of Mendes’ other films), the real cinema “Dreamland” in Margate becomes something mythical here — shining so that it really deserves to be seen on the biggest, most romantic old screen. you can find it. The performance is also on top, as is the intricately elegiac music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross-all of which makes Mendes’ clumsy, deeply conservative script even more embarrassing by comparison.
Released just weeks before The Fabelmans in the UK, Steven Spielberg’s own “ode to cinema,” Empire Of Light has a particularly short shelf life before everyone figures out which movie they could watch instead. Where Spielberg’s film reveals nostalgia to confront his own past, Mendes sews up everything meaningful with a blanket of feelings that never seem real. This is not someone’s personal story – it’s just the most filming fragments of a fake past, clumsily, beautifully, meaninglessly glued together at a speed of 24 frames per second.