“It creates an illusion of motion. An illusion of life. Out there, they just see a beam of light. And nothing happens without light.”Norman
Empire of Light has been marketed as Sam Mendes’ ode to cinema, and that can been seen in its setting — an ageing independent cinema on the English south coast — and the poetic lines about the medium intoned by Toby Jones as the fastidious projectionist. This is all set dressing, however, to a story that really focuses on the relationship between Michael Ward and Olivia Colman’s characters, unfolding amidst the racial unrest of the early 1980s. Unfortunately the characters are all written as one-note sketches — the entire cast works admirably with the material but even a titan like Colman can only do so much with the cliché of an emotionally unstable older woman enamoured with a younger man. This is Mendes’ first solo writing credit and it seems, at least for now, his writing cannot match his directorial skill. He is most effective in portraying racism in varied guises, both direct and insinuated. Empire of Light is all beautifully presented in the hands of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has now collaborated on around half of Mendes’ films) accompanied by a gently moving score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. With so much talent involved, it seems harsh to judge the film based significantly on the script alone, but this kind of quiet, emotional picture is ultimately dependent on quality writing. My impression from the trailer was that Mendes was looking to emulate Cinema Paradiso and I feared he might engage in too much navel-gazing about the importance of cinema. In truth, I could have done with more.