I was planning on taking a couple of Connecticut friendos to a showing of Sam Mendes‘ Empire of Light (Seachlight, 12.9) this weekend, except it’s primarily playing in Manhattan so I guess not. Empire won’t open wide until 12.23.
Searchlight is doing a gradual roll-out due to the usual concerns. Empire was critically roughed up during Telluride ‘22, and the current critic aggregate ratings — 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, 53% on Metacritic — have probably lowered audience interest.
Which means, of course, that it’s not very good…right? Wrong. Empire of Light is a bull’s-eye everything movie — delicate, mesmerizing, perfectly timed and balanced and calculated just so.
Set in an English seaside town (Margate) in the early ’80s, it’s a bittersweet, humanistic, somewhat gauzy tale of a short-lived May-October affair as well as a nostalgic recollection of movies and the exhibition business as they existed 40-plus years ago. Exactingly directed and written by Mendes in what I believe is his finest effort yet, pic contains yet another brilliant performance by the great Olivia Colman and an exciting mainstream-cinema debut from the obviously talented (and very good-looking) Michael Ward.
I haven’t yet seen Avatar 2: The Way of Water, but screw it…Empire of Light is HE’s choice for the absolute Best Film of 2022. Seriously, no question.
I also honestly believe that the Empire of Light haters (including IndieWire‘s David Ehrlich, L.A Times‘ Justin Chang, The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey, The Globe and Mail‘s Barry Hertz) have done their readers a huge disservice. They’ve brought a terrible, brutal blight upon a film that they know is a first-class effort — as wise, particular and well-honed as they come.
The haters have shat upon on a film that many significant others are convinced is rich and fulfilling…they’ve crapped all over it because Mendes had the chutzpah (or the temerity?) to cast the young, Jamaican-born Ward as Stephen, a 20-something theatre employee who falls into a brief, tender affair with Colman’s emotionally unstable, far-side-of-40 Hillary…because a 2022 white filmmaker is not allowed to present a character of color according to the values of bygone eras….because woke presentism requires that black characters have to be strong, firm and formidable and that no racist hate can be visited upon them …and because it’s simply not cool, the haters seem to feel, for Ward’s character to engage in sexual congress (however brief) with an older, mentally unstable woman.
I know what this film is and how well it works, and I think the Empire of Light haters should be ashamed of themselves.
The thing that sparks or drives deep-down feelings when it comes to yay-nay reviews of films…that thing is often not honestly expressed or admitted to. The fact that nobody (except Barry Hertz) has expressed anger about the racial thing…about what some seem to believe is a manipulative and opportunistic attempt on Mendes’ part to use an affair between Colman and Ward to punch up some kind of contemporary current…the apparent fact is that the haters feel that Mendes’ film is sending out the wrong 2022 message. Don’t show us how bad things were 40 years ago for people of color; show us how much better things are today.
Green Book was attacked by the same crowd for telling its tale according to the social standards and values of 1962. The wokesters wanted it told and interpreted according to 2018 standards, and they went ballistic trying to kill it for that. It’s the same deal here.
It’s one thing for a critic to say that Empire of Light isn’t his or her cup of tea….that’s fine. But many of these critics are looking to kill Mendes’ film. They want it shunned and stomped upon, and that, to me, suggests that something else is going on. Either way the Searchlight people can hear the growling and smell the drops of blood.
Wokesters see themselves as white-knight defenders and protectors of BIPOCs and LGBTQs and all marginalized groups, and as infantile and obstinate as this sounds, I believe they hate this film because they simply don’t want to see Ward’s character becoming intimate with an unbalanced, Lithium-medicating white woman in her late 40s. Nor do they want to watch Stephen dodge the assaults of racist, Thatcher-era skinheads and cranky old codgers who resent his presence as a ticket-taker. Mendes is too good of a filmmaker to play the presentism game.
Before seeing Empire of Light I had trouble believing that such an affair, however discreet or short-lived, was likely between two such characters in 1980 England, especially with the National Front goons running around. I was in London in December 1980 and I felt it. I saw skinheads on the Underground and read the anti-immigrant graffiti and felt the vibe to some extent, but guess what? The movie sells it anyway. I was charmed into accepting the terms.
Because of Colman and Ward and the rest of the cast (especially Tanya Moodie as Stephen’s mom)…because of Mendes’ writing and direction and Roger Deakins‘s cinematography, and the soothing musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as the general aura of sublime, on-target realism…somehow it works. All of it. I believed every character, every situation.
Okay, every now and then it feels a bit emotionally forced or a touch on-the-nose. But not to any wounding extent. Because I was willing to forgive. It goes like that when you really like a film.