Sam Mendes is a veteran theater and film director who has worked with a variety of material written by others. 1917 was the first feature he cowrote, but its script was really secondary to its showy single-take acrobatics. Empire of Light marks his first produced solo screenplay – yet despite Mendes's vast experience on stage and screen, his writing is amateurish and he handles his own work all too reverently.
Set at the tail end of 1980 and deep into 1981, Empire of Light's story unfolds in an unnamed seaside town in southern England. Olivia Colman stars as Hilary, the manager of a pretty movie theater that has seen better days but still stays afloat. It's clear from the start that she is a lonely and deeply unhappy woman, but when Stephen (Micheal Ward), a charismatic young black man, is hired by the theater, they soon hit it off, in spite of obvious differences.
A better-written screenplay might have thoughtfully explored the complications of a relationship between a middle-aged white woman and a twentysomething black man, but Empire of Light takes instead a ham-fisted focus on racism and mental illness. Stephen is apparently the only nonwhite man in the entire city, so guess what happens to him? Hilary is recovering from some deep psychiatric issues, so guess what happens to her? And of course there's the predictable treacly nonsense about the Healing Power of Cinema, as espoused by the theater's projectionist (Toby Jones), but it barely factors into Mendes's melodrama.
I found no chemistry between Colman and Ward, romantic or otherwise. Moreover, Stephen is so undeveloped that he's more symbol than person: the patient, noble, uncomplicated ethnic who exists only as a tonic for the film's anxious white leads. If Mendes thinks he's gained enlightenment points by depicting the tribulations of a black man in early 1980s England, the character he's created is in fact just another stereotype. We are to believe that, despite being handsome and outgoing and presumably having lived in this town for a while, Stephen has zero friends and nothing better to do with his time than to woo a dowdy, joyless, emotionally unstable woman twice his age. Who, by the way, is also his boss.
Empire of Light might almost be camp if it weren't so self-serious and dull. Like too many other contemporary British films, it ignores the very spirit of small-town British people: their wit, their chattiness, their warmth. In spite of the prodigious talent in front of and behind the camera, the movie's just not good.