A movie like Empire of Light makes me wish the filmmakers went back and tried to make the movie better. On the surface it fails because we’ve seen this story so many times before that when the two characters, Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) and Stephen Murray (Michael Ward), meet, we know everything that’s going to happen to them.
Set in the early 1980s on the northern shores of Kent, England during winter, Hillary is the duty manager at the Empire Cinema. She struggth bipolar disorder and has a sexual relationship with her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth in a slimey role). Things seem to be routine even when Donald asks her to meet with him in the audience, the rest of the workers know what is happening.
Then, one day, Stephen, who’s younger begins working there. Despite some initial bad blood as Hilary gets mad at Stephen for mocking an elderly man, she helps him when he he stands up to an older frequent patron who is obviously racist who’s brought in outside food. Stephen is a British Black something that will come up earlier in the movie when Hilary sees him being harassed by some some local skinheads and later when things move beyond harassmment.
Eventually, Hilary and Stephen bond and yadda-yadda-yadda, they have sex and begin a relationship after she kisses him on New Year’s Eve. They have some fun times at first but her bipolar disorder bcomes more evident as it seems she’s going to be unstandable. And this leads to the obligatory scene in which Hilary does something that Donald finds humiliating in front of a large group of people. Then, she tells his wife of their affair.
Sam Mendes wrote and directed the movie but he sees like a projectionist splicing together other bits and pieces of better movies. There’s no real surprise to the plot. Tony Jones pops up as Norman, the projectionist, who seems to hang back in the background most of the movie before he says something here and there and then lets Hilary know more about him when she needs to hear it. There’s also fellow emoployee, Neil (Tom Brooke), who acts as the one to tell Stephen about Hilary’s mental issues and there has been a rocky work relationship at the theater.
Colman surprised everyone with her Oscar-winning role as Queen Anne in The Favourite, that it seems she’s been the go-to actress for these types of roles the way Emma Thompson was the person 20-25 years ago. What sucks is Colman in real life has shown herself to be a very colorful person with a good sense of humor. Just like Thompson in the early 1990s, who had guest starred on Cheers as Frasier’s first wife and in the silly comedy Junior as a klutzy scientist, that she seemed to be just cast in every Merchant-Ivory period piece dramas.
Colman was also good in The Lost Daughter but that was because the movie was totally different than what people expected. She got a Golden Globe nomination for her role in this movie but mixed reviews only garnered the movie an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. I suspect the Academy noticed this as nothing more than Oscar bait. Colman and Ward have good chemistry together but I think voters could tell Colman played this role before and played it better.
While most filmmakers are trying to romanticizie the 1980s, I give Mendes the credit for showing just how bad the decade was with the racism and the ugliness.
What do you think? Please comment.