Monday, February 27, 2023

Empire of Light: Something Remains

 Olivia Colman in Sam Mendes's Empire of Light.

In Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the assistant manager of an old-fashioned moviehouse called the Empire in Margate, England in 1980 and 1981 who is sleeping with her married boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). When Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, joins the staff they become first friends, then lovers – and then Hilary, who is prone to schizophrenic episodes, breaks down. Mendes, who also wrote the script, overloads the picture – with Hilary’s psychological struggles and Stephen’s encounters with the National Front and a layer of trite sentiment about the ability of movies to keep up our faith and hope when life seems most dire. Following The Fabelmans, this is the second recent picture by a well-known director to throw a load of symbolic weight on the idea of movies. (It doesn’t help that the movies Mendes chooses to embody the salvific quality of movies are hardly inspiring; perhaps that was his intention, but if so it doesn’t accomplish what he wants it to.)

It isn’t a very good film; still, I’m sorry that it vanished so quickly because it’s one of the few holiday-season releases that meant anything to me. It’s beautiful to look at: Mendes has staged it masterfully, and his compositions and the period recreations by production designer Mark Tildesley and the veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins have a painterly grandeur. If Edward Hopper had used the southern coast of Britain has his model, his canvases might have looked like the images in Empire of Light. And the cast does unilaterally – and overwhelmingly – fine work. Ward, who played Franklyn, the working-class boy who falls in love at a dance party in Lovers Rock, the first film in Steve McQueen’s marvelous Small Axe series, offers a fresh portrait of a temporarily derailed kid trying to find his way to adulthood in a messy set of racial and emotional circumstances. This actor is disarmingly handsome, he mesmerizes the camera – and he can act. Firth’s seedy adulterer role seems like it’s out of melodrama, but Mendes has given him a gift: Ellis’s ambitions for his provincial movie theatre, which play into his vanity but also reveal themselves as a touching folly. (When his venue is chosen to house the premiere of Chariots of Fire, he’s over the moon.) Tom Brooke is bespectacled Neil, the most observant and compassionate member of the staff at the Empire. The always surprising Toby Jones is the projectionist, Norman. This is his third standout performance in the last two years – he was Benedict Cumberbatch’s kindhearted editor in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain and, unforgettably, Vanya in the staggering Ian Rickson revival of Uncle Vanya that was filmed during Covid after closing prematurely in the West End.

 Olivia Colman has been handed a part with so many flamboyant coming-apart scenes that it should be impossible. But she’s one of the wonders of the British acting royalty, and she sidesteps every trap. Nothing about her performance feels tricked up, not even the scene of Hilary’s lowest ebb, where she shows up at the Chariots of Fire premiere, takes the stage uninvited and recites an Auden poem to a befuddled audience. Colman makes the part work by finding unpredictable paths into the big set pieces, generally by introducing them with one emotion you don’t see coming.

Even when Empire of Light is rockiest, it arrives at wonderful acting moments that you know you’re going to replay in your head, like the terrifying look on Colman’s face when, after Stephen’s attempt to let Hilary down easy leads to her withdrawal from the Empire community and, worried about her, he stands outside her apartment building and looks up at her peering down at him. Jones has an impassioned little speech to Stephen, whom he is mentoring, about the magical technology of the movies – another case where an actor transcends a platitude. And the moist little welcome speech with which Firth’s Ellis welcomes the premiere audience is simultaneously fatuous and somehow affecting. I think that’s entirely to Firth’s credit – Mendes doesn’t like the character, and he gives him a stock finish. But Mendes loves his actors, and every scene in his movie proves it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

1 comment:

  1. Donald here Steve, excellent exploration of what seems a deeply human movie. Cheers.