Empire of Light: Do Nothing, Say Nothing, by David Bax
When Hilary (Olivia Colman), the assistant manager of a movie theater in a small, coastal city on the English coastline in the early 1980s, arrives at work in the morning, the glass box on display beneath the lobby’s concession counter is already filled with popcorn. All she needs to do is turn on the light. “My condolences to the moviegoers who get served that stale-ass popcorn,” I thought to myself. But the joke was on me. I was that moviegoer and the stalest ass of all belongs to Empire of Light.
Colman may be front and center but Empire of Light is absolutely oozing pedigree from every pore. Colin Firth and Toby Jones also star, along with up and comer Micheal Ward from 2020’s Lovers Rock. Sam Mendes is not only directing but also provides the screenplay, his first time as the sole credited writer on a movie. And the score comes from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Unfortunately, though, its seems as if the workhorse duo put most of their creative juices for the year into Luca Guadagnino‘s Bones and All. Compared to that, the music here sounds sentimental, goopy and shockingly anonymous.
One person you can always count on, though, is Roger Deakins. His cinematography here is as good as ever. Everything here is painted with a cold, dry light. It’s like the sun is always just about to come from behind the clouds or like winter is just about to turn into spring but never does. It leaves you longing for more warmth and comfort but it’s always just out of reach, which is a pretty good way of getting us into Hilary’s depressed state of mind. The world of the movie is overcast but never diffuse. On the contrary, the environments are all hard, well-defined lines, unmalleable, not to be negotiated with.
It’s not just Hilary who has to deal with the lack of options such a world leaves her with. Her newest employee is Stephen (Ward) and Empire of Light‘s chief narrative concern is their unlikely but deepening relationship. Unfortunately, for all the time we spend with Stephen, Mendes doesn’t seem much interested in him beyond the stereotype of the struggling, poor kid with a heart of gold. As far as 2022 movies in which a Black character exists mainly to reflect the journey of the white protagonist go, it’s not as bad as Armageddon Time. But it’s close.
Mendes sets a part of the action around the 1981 Brixton uprising, in which thousands of Black British fought back against longtime racist policing. For a more intelligent use of those events in film, see Steve McQueen‘s Alex Wheatle. In Empire of Light, the main reason to showcase the uprising is to make Stephen a victim of white nationalist backlash.
Mendes hasn’t directed a film I’ve liked in nearly fifteen years (shout out to my fellow Revolutionary Road lovers). And Empire of Light exemplifies why. He seems to be so complacent in his status as a middlebrow prestige maestro that trite, po-faced, faux-inspirational fare like this is all he remembers how to do.