Monday December 19, 2022
Movie Review: Empire of Light (2022)
I liked it well enough for never believing—and actually feeling squeamish about—the central relationship.
The aptly named Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is the assistant manager of the Empire Theater in the town of Lido, on the British coast in the early 1980s. We get snapshots of her life. Selling tickets. Picking up popcorn. Reluctantly jacking off her boss (Colin Firth) in his office. Eating dinner by herself at her small kitchen table.
Which image is sadder—the jackoff or the kitchen table? You can make arguments for both but the last one feels like a staple shot of the lonely in movies. They’re not watching TV or reading a book or listening to music. It’s just them at the table with the food: cutting the meat, chewing, staring into space. I guess I just don’t know anyone who does this—or maybe it’s simply that I don’t do it—so it doesn’t feel like life to me. Anyway, at this point, I was wary of where writer-director Sam Mendes was going. He wanted us to feel sad for Hilary. He wanted us to care about Hilary before we knew about Hilary.
Then there’s a new hire at the Empire, Stephen (Michael Ward), a young, handsome Black kid, and Hilary’s life changes.
The bird with the broken wing
Though the punk girl has a thing for Stephen, and the projectionist (Toby Jones) eventually takes him under his wing, Stephen, for some reason, gloms onto Hilary, the dowdy, quiet, assistant manager. He asks where another set of stairs lead, and she says there used to be two more theaters, along with a café, and shows him the semi-dilapidated remains. (Even that felt a bit off to me. In the U.S., at the time, the movement was toward multiplexes.) The café is now the habitat of various birds, including one that Stephen finds in a cupboard with a broken wing. He knows how to nurse that broken wing: He cuts a hole in a sock and puts the sock on the bird so its wings are trapped; so it won’t try to fly away and it’ll give the wing a chance to heal.
Ah, I thought. Hilary’s the bird with the broken wing.
Well, it turns out there are a lot of broken wings.
There’s a moment, too, when he reaches for the bird, and his dress shirt lifts, exposing some waist-level flesh. We see Hilary eyeing it. Then for New Years Eve, rather than hang with the other kids, he rings in 1981 with Hilary on the rooftop. And they kiss. And later, in the dilapidated café, they fuck. And she begins to blossom. She takes charge of things. When the boss asks to see her in his office for his weekly jackoff, she says no. And that medication she’s been taking? Which makes her feel numb? She stops taking it. She doesn’t need it anymore. She’s free.
Except the medication is lithium and she does need it. She’s bipolar or schizophrenic, and she changes, slowly at first, and then very very quicky, from a mousy woman into a terrifying figure. (Olivia Colman is amazing in this.)
We’d gotten flashes. The way she snapped at Stephen after he mocked the elderly customer—though her anger made sense. He’s youth making fun of the old, she’s old, is this what he thinks of her? Plus she’s right. You don’t do that. (It’s the one time in the movie where Stephen does what you shouldn’t do.) No, it’s at the beach, when she suddenly destroys the sandcastle that you see glimmers of what she’s becoming. And it all comes undone when the Empire Theater hosts the premiere of “Chariots of Fire,” the boss’ big night. He welcomes everyone, gives a speech, and as he exits the stage she improbably enters, in sparkly blue gown and racoon eye makeup, to give a speech of her own. It’s about racial tolerance. She reads a poem. And it’s not horrible, just odd, and in the lobby she and the boss argue, and she #MeToos him in front of his wife. She destroys them both. Then she holes herself up in her place, drinking and playing too-loud music and glowering down from the window when Stephen stops by. Eventually the cops batter down the door to take her away.
Again, Colman is amazing. I bought her character completely. I just never saw what Stephen saw in her. She’s either boring or terrifying. And there’s a difference not only in age but looks. Watching, I was doing the math. What is she—35 years older? Turns out the actors are 25 years apart. I still had trouble watching them together. I don’t know if it was because of the age difference, or the looks difference, or because she reminded me of my mother. Maybe the problem was me more than Mendes. Actors like Colman don’t get sex scenes in movies much, so maybe it was the shallow, sexist part of me that was rebelling. But all of that is mixed up with matters of age, and race, that mostly remain unstated. So much of the movie goes unspoken until it shouts.
The chips guy
Is Stephen too good? Too blank? Too soft? Who is he? The longer the film goes, the more of his homelife we get. We meet his mom, who’s an immigrant nurse, and she keeps him on the right path. But a path is not a character.
Beyond all that, “Empire of Light” is a gentle, nostalgic look at filmgoing that lets you know how much times have changed: the threading of the film, the professionalism of the projectionist, the team of ushers. It’s also a less-than-nostalgic look at racism and xenophobia that lets you know how little times have changed. I liked both of these threads.
But there are several moments when Mendes seems to create drama by having his characters act ... not smart. A rude customer shows up with chips, which he can’t take into the theater. Stephen politely tells him the theater policy, and he gets angry at Stephen—as if Stephen created the policy—and sure, that’s the way people are, they’re assholes, and this dude is probably a little racist, too. All that’s believable. It’s everything else. The asshole winds up eating all the chips while standing in the lobby and staring down Stephen. And everyone stares at the two of them staring at each other. There are customers behind this guy, just waiting, but no one moves. Maybe it’s the old Boulevard usher in me, but I wanted to wave those customers around this guy. Keep things moving. Or is that too American? Instead, everyone lets him be the center of attention. It’s silly.
The bigger forehead slap for me is later in the movie. By this time, Colin Firth is gone, Hilary is back from hospital, and the dweeby, funny head usher, Neil (Tom Brooke), is now the manager. They’re all in the breakroom, having a laugh, when they hear a humming, thrumming noise. In the lobby, on the avenue out front, they see all these motorcycles and vespas going by. And while initially charmed by the sight, like it’s a parade, they suddenly realize, no, it’s skinheads and xenophobes, and Neil, serious now, tells the others to lock the doors. What he doesn’t say, what no one says, but what I immediately thought was, “Get Stephen out of sight.” Instead, like an idiot, Stephen walks right up to the long row of glass doors to help lock them—and right into view of the skinheads. And of course they notice, and shout, and bang at the doors. And they break through. And both Stephen and Neil are beaten. And none of that would’ve happened if someone had been just a little smart for just a second.
So the bird with the broken wing eventually flies, and Stephen eventually finds direction. He dates a girl his own age, and he applies to university, and gets in. The end of the movie is him leaving. At the park, Hilary races after him to hug him one more time. She wraps him in her arms like he’s a bird with a broken wing, when he’s not, when he can fly just fine. But there’s such need in her. It’s awful to say, but I didn’t really like her, and I didn’t really believe him, and they’re most of the movie. But I liked hanging with Toby Jones in the projection room. I could’ve spent the entire movie there.