The pandemic has put filmmakers in a state of restlessness and increased anxiety about the future of movie theaters, that space that they do not stop claiming as the most majestic to be able to see their works and the one that favors making a special connection with the film in the hands of a lot of strangers. It is perhaps more romantic than the average experience, but it is nonetheless necessary to vindicate the amplifying factor that these locations have.
Even before the forced closure due to the Coronavirus, we have seen authors talking about the experience of cinema through their own biographies, but this type of film has proliferated to try to remind us of that pleasure of finding stories on a giant screen inside a dark room. ‘the empire of light‘ is the latest example of this, with a romance story several levels deep.
a magic light
Sam Mendes takes a break from excellent James Bond and ‘1917’ shows to return to a more intimate and delicate adult drama. Here we follow the character of Olivia Colman, a worker at a modest cinema in the south of England in the eighties who maintains a complex relationship with the owner, played by Colin Firth.
The dynamics in the old cinema will change with the arrival of the character of Michael Ward, a young black man looking for temporary work until he leaves to study at the university. This boy will connect in a special way with Colman’s character, maintaining a secret romantic relationship marked by complexity. He has to endure the difficulties of being black in a time where racism is on the risewhile she deals with mental health issues and an abusive relationship with her boss.
All of these are serious (or SERIOUS) issues that Mendes tries to intertwine with the romantic relationships that take place, both the one the protagonists have with each other and the one they maintain with the sacred space in which they work. The imminent premiere of ‘Chariots of Fire’, an ambitious British production designed to exalt the feeling of unity in the nation, is one of the sophisticated details with which the filmmaker plays to express the paradoxical situation in the country with the rise of racial hatred.
However, the script, signed by Mendes himself, does not finish finding the necessary refinement so that all its fronts are connected. Apart from the fact that intolerance is approached with a certain superficiality that doesn’t do it much favour, the connection between its protagonists does not hold. His treatment is erratic, especially that of Colman’s character and his mental instability, which should feel more considerate and genuine because of the director’s personal connection (his mother also suffered from mental health issues).
The tone of his direction also feels irregular, not knowing how to navigate from the melancholy that dominates the story to the most tacky outbursts, which curiously take place at the entrance to the cinema. There are very specific scenes where he seems to want make a spectacular union between personal drama and political outbursts They are reminiscent of the cinema of Alfonso Cuarón, who usually makes those kinds of moments and turns them into something spectacular, but in this film they feel excessively abrupt.
‘The empire of light’: a space full of life
Not for that reason Mendes leaves a neglected film. The visual is one of the aspects where ‘El imperio de la luz’ stands out completely, creating an exquisite melancholy through that well-recreated atmosphere. There are two clear winners in this film with whom the director is in perfect harmony: Roger Deakins, who re-signs a picture worthy of an Oscar nomination (when it looked like it was given to him for being him) with wonderful use of colors and space, and mark tildesleywhich makes the production design so formidable that it helps make this old theater look majestic and full of life.
the film turns out more captivating when more makes us walk through the bowels of this theater of dreams, from the luxurious hall to the abandoned second floor. And also in the projector room, which creates a magical moment with Colman watching the screen (the kind of “power of cinema” moment that is as tacky as it is poignant here). In those sections is when everything clicks, from the actors with their characters to the melancholic music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who sign a discreet but adequate work). For that reason alone it is impossible to despise something like ‘The Empire of Light’.
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