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Empire of Light review – empty ode to the movies fails to project anything meaningful

Sam Mendes' first film as writer-director proves misguided, failing as both a love letter to cinema and as an exploration of societal ills

In his two decade-plus career as a filmmaker, Sam Mendes has proven himself a consistent and capable adapter, but never quite a writer. Empire of Light, his contribution to a recent slew of autobiographical, confessional laments on the intersection of life and cinema, might be considered a failed experiment in attempted auteurism – a bid to dictate a more personal canon that only exposes him as the least efficient member among a team of talented collaborators, including the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Well-intentioned, certainly. But this sloppy, surface level drama unfortunately exudes the flimsiness of a first draft. Set in a south-eastern coastal town that is clearly Margate but never named as such, Empire of Light charts the turbulent May-December romance between cinema worker Hilary (Olivia Colman) and new employee Stephen (Michael Ward), a young Black man with his sights set on college. It’s played out against the backdrop of an increasingly disturbing – and impressively re-produced – Thatcherite Britain of the early 1980s, rich with period detail and a chilly air of uneasy nostalgia.

Hilary is depicted as a sad, lonely woman who dines solo and celebrates Christmas alone, caught in a depressing affair with the cinema’s married manager (Colin Firth on autopilot). Even Hilary’s doctor is apathetic to her pain: he's largely uninterested when she tells him her medication is causing feelings of numbness. Only in the company of sensitive Stephen, who arrives and within five minutes has nursed a wounded pigeon back to health (it's that kind of movie), does she feel understood.

Colman is, as expected, a reliable screen presence, though prone to a little more overegging here in some of the film's more dramatic scenes. Ward, meanwhile, is given a template and does his best, but can't overcome Mendes' shallow characterisation. Aesthetically, at least, the picture thrives. Tonally, it fails to cohere in any meaningful way, crashing wildly between scenes that, had they not been framed so beautifully by Deakins (the movie’s undeniable MPV), wouldn't feel out of place in a naff sitcom or middling ITV drama.

Numerous allusions to the film of Hal Ashby suggest it was perhaps Mendes’s intention to create something with purposeful tonal dissonance, a serious drama with dashes of absurd comedy. But Sam Mendes is no Hal Ashby. That’s not to say the movie is completely devoid of pleasure: Mendes’ inherent competence as a filmmaker keeps things largely watchable, even as the questionable decisions begin to pile up.

And they do pile up. Like in the second half, when Empire of Light dims on the sweet-natured romance and attempts to grapple with a smörgåsbord of Big Issues such as racism, mental heath, sexual assault and generational trauma, yet only ever superficially, pulling weighty topics into a narrative that lacks the faculties to properly process them, like a toddler picking up and putting down toys at random. Soon a realisation sets in: this filmmaker has bitten off more than he can chew… and there’s no place to go.

The film’s failings extend to the one area where Empire of Light should have easily thrived: as a much talked-up “love letter to cinema.” Despite its gilded picturehouse setting, admiring shots of projection equipment, and conversations about the healing power of sitting in the dark with strangers, the movie never resonates with an authentic interest in cinema. Toby Jones’ scruffy projectionist is saddled with far too many cheesy lines and, like many of the bit players here, is something of a scribble: a stock character designed to dispense Mendes' heavy-handed dialogue, but little sense of interior life.

It would be cynical and stupid to question Mendes' own love of film. That said, none of his passion for the medium translates to what he has made here – mainly because the artificial sheen stops us from being properly absorbed in what's going on. When Hilary finally sits back and (somehow, for the first time in her life) gazes up at the great screen in the sky, the moment feels calculated, inevitable and overly telegraphed – the life-affirming heights of Cinema Paradiso’s iconic, rousing finale imitated but emotionally out of reach.

The movie, a supposedly personal effort from Mendes, doesn’t offer up much evidence to suggest he was the filmmaker to tell a story about race. But nor does it convince as a soapbox for cinematic adoration, either. Empire of Light, ironically, asks us to swoon over its alleged love for the movies but never finds a way to make us feel it for ourselves. Instead it spoon-feeds and patronises and then evades an audience who are capable – and willing – to work harder. It’s proof that a movie can purport to be about so many things and still somehow turn out to be about nothing at all.

Empire of Light is released in UK cinemas on 9 January.

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