Empire of Light, the latest film from Sam Mendes (1917; American Beauty), is, if nothing else, a gorgeously crafted drama. Mendes has always been a technically proficient filmmaker, and in his nostalgic look back at a moviegoing past, he manages several moments of pure cinematic brilliance. Unfortunately, in his first outing as a solo screenwriter, Mendes's ambitions somewhat outstrip his grasp; Empire of Light can't decide what it wants to be about, and vacillates among multiple distinct themes that never cohere into an entirely satisfying whole.
Set in an old fashioned movie house on the English seaside, Empire of Light follows two of the cinema's employees through a turbulent period in 1980s Britain. Hilary (Olivia Colman), recently back from a stint in a psychiatric hospital, is the cinema's duty manager carrying on a truly depressing affair with cinema owner Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). Like Hilary, the Empire has seen better days; half the cinema is closed and run down, but it retains a certain glamour. In a rapidly changing Britain, the Empire persists as an escape for its patrons and a haven for its motley crew of ticket takers and concession attendants, including new arrival Stephen (Micheal Ward), with whom Hilary strikes up a tender friendship that blossoms into unlikely romance.
If that sounds like a lot of ground to cover, well, it is. From moment to moment, Empire of Light is about a May-December romance, a woman's challenges with mental illness (and the State's inability to properly respond to them), the experience of a young Black man in Thatcher-era England, workplace sexual harassment, and the unifying power of cinema. It's a difficult juggling act, and Mendes can't help but drop a few balls.
That said, there's not much I can actually point to beyond that wrong with Empire of Light, particularly from a craft perspective. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, reteaming with Mendes for the fourth time, really takes the film's title to heart; each light source feels appreciably different, from the soft glow of cinema lamps to fluorescent overheads in the staff lounge to the sunless skies of the English coast. The film's entire aesthetic is gauzy and nostalgic, but never cloying, gritty without feeling entirely unvarnished. And Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's remarkable score is delicate, yet grand, at times seeming to dance with the camera.
And the cast is uniformly excellent, led by Colman, whose incomparable ability to convey a veritable tapestry of emotions across her face has made her one of the most thrilling actors of the past decade. A development for her character late in the film gives her a couple of huge showcase scenes, and although I don't think that turn ultimately redounds to the film's benefit, Colman unsurprisingly knocks them out of the park. She finds a game screen partner in BAFTA Rising Star Award-winner Ward, whose charming breakout performance here is one of the film's high points. Ward is extremely charming, and his relationship with Colman's Hilary is deeply defined, without ignoring the contextual complexities of their varying ages, races, and positions at their shared workplace.
In smaller roles, Firth makes the most of his real bastard of a cinema owner, and veteran character actor Jones tenderly waxes rhapsodic about the magic of the movies while surrounded by film canisters and headshots of golden age stars. Sure, it's a bit much, but on balance it's mostly enchanting—much like Empire of Light itself.