Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Too much polish, not enough nerve

  Few 2022 movies are as impeccably crafted as director Sam Mendes's Empire of Light. Set
during the Thatcher years of the 1980s, the movie focuses on the Empire Theater.
 Once a proud movie palace, the aptly named Empire stands for a time when both movies and Great Britain had a more exalted profile than they did in the 1980s, not exactly a high point for either reality or fantasy.
   It should be stated at the outset that the movie offers another bravura performance from Olivia Colman. Colman excels as a mentally disturbed woman who manages The Empire, joylessly submits to the sexual advances of her sleazy boss (Colin Firth), and develops a relationship with a young black man (Michael Ward) who lands a job at the theater.
    Empire of Light wants to pay tribute to the powers of cinema  while telling telling the stories of the people who work at a place where the downtrodden masses once sought glamor and escape.
     So given all this polish and craft, why does Empire of Light fail to get where it might have gotten?
     The most obvious reason involves Mendes's issue-laden screenplay, which sketches its way through racism, the rise of right-wing street punks, as well as sexual abuse and mental illness. 
      Colman's Hilary has a troubled past that's reflected in the uneasiness of Colman's demeanor. A solitary figure who has been stabilized by lithium, Hilary develops a relationship with Ward's Stephen, who's acutely aware of the racial climate in the surrounding town. 
       At one point, Hilary shows Stephen the upper stories of the Empire building, which once housed a ballroom but has become a refuge for pigeons. It's as if she's sharing a forbidden secret with him: It cements their connection.
      Hillary will invest more in the relationship than Stephen, but he's kind and genuinely concerned about a woman who's much older than he is.
      Nicely calibrated performances, including from Hannah Onslow as one of the theater's employees, Tom Brooke, as junior manager, and Toby Jones, as the movie's projectionist, have a strange consequence. They add to a feeling that Empire has been over-groomed, notably by cinematographer Roger Deakins' wondrous images and production designer Mark Tidesley carefully appointed sets. (A real theater in the seaside town of Margate was used for filming.)
      It would be unfair to say that any sense of urgency suffocates under the weight of production design, but only Colman shatters the movie's often decorous surfaces, most notably in a scene in which Hilary (sans lithium) crashes a gala opening of Chariots of Fire, a premiere that Firth's character regards as pivotal in the re-establishment of the theater's cultural and social primacy. 
        Hilary becomes an uninvited intruder on the stage, where she recites Auden and generally makes a large crowd feel ill at ease. Something real and disturbing overtakes the palace of fantasy and, in the case of Chariots of Fire, any feeling of reassurance that picture might have offered.
       It may be inadvertent, but Empire of Light works less as a  tribute to the transporting power of cinema, an old-hat subject anyway, than as testimony to the power of an actor to unleash something volcanic, nervy and difficult to categorize.
     Even in a movie that can't leap over the high bar it sets, Colman continues to amaze.

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