“Empire of Light” takes two interminable hours to say what the Nicole Kidman AMC ad covers in one minute. For those without access to that theater chain, Kidman’s commercial is a love poem to the “magic of the movies” that treats the movie theater as if it were the holiest of churches. I agree the cinema is a sacred place, but I despise this ad.
Audiences love it, however. People go bonkers when Kidman says “somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” Folks stand up, recite the ad verbatim, and cheer when it’s over. (That booing you hear at AMC is probably me.)
I doubt audience members will stand up and cheer for “Empire of Light,” now in Boston theaters, which follows a group of movie theater employees in an English seaside town in the 1980s. Director Sam Mendes tries his hand at writing an original screenplay solo, and the results are far from magical. Instead, “Empire of Light” strands its poorly defined characters in a nostalgia piece filtered through the director’s love of the movies. (For a better film on the same theme, watch “The Fabelmans.”)
The protagonist here is Hilary (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged woman who manages the Empire Theater and has done so for many years. “Empire of Light” opens with her daily routine of opening the theater, hitting the lights, turning on the heat, and setting out slippers for her boss.
The Empire’s slate includes classics like “All That Jazz,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “Being There.” But the one thing Hilary never does is actually watch the movies. “They’re for the customers,” she says.
Roger Deakins’s incredible cinematography lights the Empire as if it were heaven; he’s the movie’s MVP, and his work is Oscar-worthy. The outside shots of fireworks and beaches are beautiful, but it’s Deakins’s work on the interiors that’s truly stunning. When the curtain goes up at the Empire, I got the same pang in my heart as I do when it happens in a real theater.
Hilary’s boss, Donald (Colin Firth), is a married man who’s been having an affair with her for years. Mendes introduces us to Donald early on in a scene where Hilary manually services him in his office — and we understand this is routine. The sex scenes between Hilary and Donald are meant to be cringeworthy counterpoints to Hilary’s love scenes with Stephen (Micheal Ward), a much younger co-worker, but none of the trysters have any chemistry with each other.
Before becoming the object of midlife-crisis lust, Stephen joins the theater as a concession stand worker and sometime ticket booth operator. His colleagues include ushers Janine (Hannah Onslow), who dresses like she’s going to a Cure concert, and Neil (Tom Brooke), who knows Hilary best; and an excellent and perfectly cast Toby Jones as Norman, a cranky projectionist who loves his job and spouts platitudes about the power of film. Stephen is the only Black employee, a detail Mendes will belabor as he tries to inject another message into his movie.
Once again, as in “Armageddon Time,” audiences are asked to sit through a story where a white person learns a lesson about racism thanks to a Black character who’s treated as little more than a prop. In an earlier scene, before Stephen gets his head stomped in by a randomly appearing gang of skinheads, Hilary witnesses him being harassed on the street. Mendes cuts to a shot of Colman’s face registering that — wow — racism really exists. Later, Mendes introduces a new subplot featuring Stephen’s mother and a former girlfriend. They appear far too late to add any dimension to Stephen’s life and serve only to congratulate Hilary for acknowledging injustice.
“Empire of Light” commits another sin that plagues many films about mental illness — using a character’s condition only when it’s convenient to the plot. Hilary is taking lithium at her doctor’s discretion, but suddenly decides to stop. She has a manic episode during the Empire’s gala opening of “Chariots of Fire.” Upon returning to work, she discovers the healing power of movies. Mendes even stages a scene of a projector beaming light onto Hilary, calling to mind that AMC ad, at least for this viewer.
Colman, talented trooper that she is, gives it her all — but I wasn’t buying. Just like Nic Kidman’s ad, “Empire of Light” sells a movie magic message that just doesn’t ring true.
EMPIRE OF LIGHT
Written and directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Hannah Onslow, and Tom Brooke. At AMC Boston Common 19, Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, and Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place. 119 minutes. R (sex scenes, nudity, racial violence, use of the N-word)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.