Empire Of Light

Where I Watched It: HBO MAX

English Audio description Provided By: Deluxe

Narrated By: Christian Simpson

Sam Mendes is a director that gets me into a film, cast be damned. I won’t make any claim that he has hit a home run every single time, but he’s a very strong director at bat. Generally, he has delivered some terrific work. For the longest time, when i was young and first starting to explore the art of cinema, I would refer to American Beauty as my favorite film. Times change, the lists move around, and while I still rank that movie high, it’s now behind another Mendes film, Skyfall.

I saw Empire Of Light coming into Oscar season with Olivia Coleman directed by Mendes, and I assumed we had an Oscar juggernaut on our hands. The reception for this has been incredibly tepid, except for the lavish praise for DP Roger Deakins, who holds the lone Oscar nomination for this film in the Best Cinematography category.

Obviously, being a now blind film critic, I can’t talk about Roger’s work, though I suspect he delivers yet again. As far as the film goes, it does feel a little like we’ve been here before, and somehow it’s been done better. Just last year, Olivia Coleman was recognized for playing a rather mentally unstable character in The Lost Daughter, so seeing her bring out that same sort of character again doesn’t feel like it has the same effect. Colin Firth is being used here again in an asshole role, which seems somewhat new to him, except he also just pulled that off in The Staircase. The true original here is Toby jones, who no one is talking about, but plays a projectionist that feels truly captivated by the spectacle he’s in charge of.

See, the empire in the title is a movie theatre, and the catharsis here is that Mendes uses this to celebrate cinema from the perspective of the employees tasked with the viewing experience, telling their stories in what he believes is a rich and beautiful way. As someone who worked in theatres for over ten years, across four chains, in different cities, with a range of six to twenty screens, in all of my tenure, I never saw myself in this film.

Perhaps, that’s why I gravitated most toward Toby Jones, because he felt the most like someone who was there because he couldn’t be anywhere else. His love of cinema comes across the strongest. Meanwhile, this theatre is run in such a way that it seemingly needs everyone to show up for every shift, and has no extra staff. And everyone has their one job that defines them. I’ve never seen or worked in any theatre remotely close to that, where we were that understaffed that an illness could throw a wrench in our operations, or that you were stuck in one position. Four theatre chains, and cross training was valued even if you had a singular focus.

So, while Mendes has tried to giv these workers their due, I’m not really sure he knows what theatre employees actually do. Then again, he is British, and this film is set in the UK, back when Chariots Of Fire was all the rage. But even then, I still think it’s an over simplification. And since this is where his film is set, with these characters, getting it right actually feels important.

Michael Ward enters as the new hire, the new usher to take your tickets, and to remind patrons that they can’t bring in outside food and drink. Again, so totally relatable. Mendes also decides to explore relationships, using Coleman to interact with both Firth and Ward on romantic levels, and having Ward as the Lorax for all black people of the time, much like Armageddon Time put the weight of racism onto Jalen Webb. Instead of attempting to really harness and interact with Ward’s life in a way that would perhaps even make him a co-lead, Mendes stays with Coleman because she’s just so complex… I suppose.

Empire Of Light is a great first draft of what could ahve been, but Mendes went with that draft. I think he truly felt like he had a masterpiece here, but instead of pushing out a Skyfall, he pushed out a Spectre. If he had just marinated on the project a bit longer, he might have come and found the truth he was looking for the whole time, and become one of those illuminating works that Toby Jones seems so enamored with on his silver screens.

The audio description here does a good job of balancing a lot of concepts and ideas. Much like The Fablemans, Empire of Light is a celebration of the art form, which is often seen as a visual medium. To capturing the moments when the film is focusing on things like how a projector operates, is important to that theme. Also, the narration tracks the pervasive racism thrown toward Michael Ward’s character.

It’s very much not a terrible or bad film. I wasn’t terribly bored, though maybe a few minutes could have tightened up the film. Mendes is a solid director, so it never goes off the rails. And he assembled a cast worth watching, even if none of them are delivering the best performances of their careers. It’s a final product, but most will wonder what this film really could have been, instead of what they actually got.

Final Grade: B-

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