[Screen It]


(2022) (Olivia Coleman, Michael Ward) (R)

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Drama: A woman finds new romance in the early 1980s movie theater where she works.

It's the early 1980s and Hilary Small (OLIVIA COLEMAN) works in a movie theater located on England's south coast, working alongside a small team of coworkers including projectionist Norman (TOBY JONES). Having previously been institutionalized for her manic spells, she now has that under control, but is still having an affair with her married boss, Donald Ellis (COLIN FIRTH).

But her romantic attention turns to her newest and younger coworker, Stephen (MICHAEL WARD), who's biding his time until he's accepted into a university, all while having to contend with racism targeting him. As their romance blossoms, Hilary must contend with the repercussions of believing she's okay enough to back off her medication.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10

Since movies take so long to make from the first words written in the script to what shows up on the screen, they obviously can't immediately react to and otherwise typically aren't known for what's become so common in the social media world. And that is what's currently trending, something for which the likes of Twitter and other such sites can immediately point out based on what people are chatting about or searching for.

Yet, what seems to be trending in terms of themes in releases coming out at the end of 2022 is love letters, if you will, to the world of filmmaking and the power of movies. First up was Steven Spielberg's examination of the power of film in his semi-autobiographical (and terrific) "The Fabelmans." Coming up in a few weeks is Damien Chazelle's gonzo meets cautionary tale of the movie biz in "Babylon."

And stuck in between -- and alas, the weakest of the bunch -- is Sam Mendes' "Empire of Light." Working from his own script, the director (best known for "American Beauty," "1917" and the Bond films "Skyfall" and "Spectre") sets his tale in a movie theater located in an early 1980s era English coastal town and has the story revolve around its employees.

There's manager Hilary Small (the always terrific Olivia Coleman) who's recently returned to work there after a brief mental health hiatus and has since resumed her affair with her married boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). While projectionist Norman is the old veteran, most of the rest of the employees are younger, including newcomer Stephen (Michael Ward) who's biding his time until he can get into a university.

He and Hilary soon become an item, but her newfound happiness results in her believing she can now skip her lithium prescription, which results in the subsequent return of her problematic symptoms, all while Stephen (who's black) must contend with an increase in racism in the predominantly white town. Along the way, there are plenty of well-known films that come and go through their theater, including the local premiere of "Chariots of Fire."

Yet, despite all of those, the setting, and the related jobs, the thematic elements and loving view of all things film related disappointingly comes off as oddly muted and mundane, which also applies to the overall storyline as well. None of it's bad, mind you, and the performances are quite good as is the cinematography by the always great Roger Deakins.

I guess I was just expecting more -- especially considering Mendes serving as writer and director -- but the results are just sort of meh. And the love letter to all things cinema related pales in comparison to those other two releases and thus feels like a letdown. As a result, "Empire of Light" rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.

Posted December 9, 2022

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