“Empire of Light” takes place in and around an old movie palace in a British seaside town. This cinema, which is called the Empire, is more than a mere setting: it’s the movie’s center of gravity, its soul, its governing metaphor and reason for being.
In the early 1980s, the Empire has fallen on hard times, rather like the global power evoked by its name. The sun hasn’t quite set, but the upstairs screens are now permanently dark, and a once-sumptuous lounge on the top floor is frequented mainly by pigeons. The public still shows up to buy popcorn and candy, and to see films like “The Blues Brothers,” “Stir Crazy” and “All That Jazz,” but the mood is one of quietly accepted defeat. Even the light looks tired.
That light is also beautiful, thanks to the unrivaled cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose images impart a tone of gentle nostalgia. It’s possible to look back fondly on a less-than-golden age, and Sam Mendes (“Revolutionary Road,” “1917”), the writer and director, casts an affectionate gaze on the Empire, its employees, and the drab, sometimes brutal realities of Thatcher-era Britain.
“Empire of Light” has a sad story to tell, one that touches on mental illness, sexual exploitation, racist violence and other grim facts of life. But Mendes isn’t a realist in the mode of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. The period-appropriate British movies that find their way to the Empire’s screens are “Gregory’s Girl” and “Chariots of Fire,” and Mendes borrows some of their sweet, gentle humor and heartfelt humanist charm.
Olivia Colman plays Hilary, the Empire’s duty manager, who oversees a motley squad of cinema soldiers. There is a nerdy guy, a post-punk girl and a grumpy projectionist. They are soon joined by Stephen (Micheal Ward), a genial young man whose college plans are on hold.
Hilary and her boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), are carrying on a desultory affair. For her, the rushed encounters in his office are part of a dreary workplace routine, evidence of an ongoing malaise. Things could always be worse, and for Hilary, they have been. She has recently returned to work after spending time in a mental hospital after a breakdown and takes lithium to maintain her equilibrium.
Stephen’s arrival jolts her out of her torpor, which is both exciting and risky. He seems more open to experience, more capable of happiness, than anyone else in this grubby little city, and he and Hilary strike up a friendship that turns into more. His encounters with hostile skinheads and bigoted customers open Hilary’s eyes to the pervasiveness of racial prejudice. Together they nurse a wounded pigeon back to health.
For a while, their romance unfolds in a quiet, quotidian rhythm that allows you to appreciate Colman and Ward’s fine-grained performances. “What are days?” the poet Philip Larkin asked — he’s a favorite of Hilary’s, along with W.H. Auden — and his answer was both somber and sublime. “Days are where we live.” The daily rituals of work at the Empire, and the pockets of free time that open up within it, add a dimension of understated enchantment, as if a touch of big-screen magic found its way into the break room, the concession stand and the box office.
It’s inevitable that the spell will break, and when it does, “Empire of Light” falters. Mendes raises the stakes and accelerates the plot, pushing Hilary and Stephen through a series of crises that weigh the movie down with earnest self-importance. A film that had seemed interested in the lives and feelings of its characters, and in an unlikely but touching relationship between two people at odds with the world around them, turns into a movie with Something to Say.
The message is muddled and soft, like a Milk Dud at the bottom of the box, and the movie chews on it for quite a while. “Empire of Light” arrives at its emotional terminus long before it actually ends. Things keep happening, as if Mendes were trying to talk himself and us through ideas that hadn’t been fully worked out. There isn’t really much insight to be gleaned on the subjects of mental illness, racial politics, middle age or work, though an earnest effort is made to show concern about all of them.
What “Empire of Light” really wants to be about are the pleasures of ’80s pop music, fine English poetry and, above all, movies. Like everyone else at the Empire, the grumpy projectionist takes a liking to Stephen, and shows him how to work the machinery, eliciting exclamations of wonder from the young man, and also from old-timers in the audience who might remember the vanished sights and sounds of celluloid. The velvet ropes and plush seats, the beam of light and the whirring — it’s all lovely and bittersweet to contemplate.
Movies have always been more than a source of comfort: They have the power to disturb, to seduce, to provoke and to enrage. None of that really interests Mendes here, even though the story of Hilary and Stephen might have benefited from a tougher, less sentimental telling.
Empire of Light
Rated R. Sex and violence, just like in the movies. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. In theaters.