Yesterday I tried to elaborate upon my positive Telluride reaction to Sam Mendes‘ Empire of Light (Searchlight, 12.9). Toward the end of the comment thread Rosso Veneziano replied as follows: “I respect your take but the general consensus is that the movie is bad. 58 on Metacritic, 47% on Rotten Tomatoes…and that means rotten. It’s not just critics at Telluride — the TIFF reviews were even worse.”
HE response: You first have to remember that many if not most of the critical elite are not standing on the same terra firma as the rest of us. In more ways than one they’re living on their own frilly planet. Every consensus opinion that emanates from this bunch has to be filtered through this basic reality. Most of them are not of this earth.
Trust me — they’re dismissing Empire of Light because they’re unable to buy the curious but ultimately poignant romantic bond between the two leads, played by Michael Ward and Olivia Colman. (If Ward’s Stephen character was played by a non-POC, the reactions would be quite different.) I myself was skeptical of this dynamic going in, but the fine writing, acting and overall period swoon effect, which is partly if not largely due to excellent production design plus Roger Deakins‘ handsome cinematography…all of this won me over.
Filmmakers are generally required to depict POCs with a paintbrush of presentism these days (i.e., presenting them according to contemporary sensibilities), and many critics, knowing this, will get all riled when a Black character is presented “incorrectly” within a period film. Many elite critics see themselves as white-knight figures whose task is to bestow dignity or even majesty upon characters of color.
Ward’s performance will never be criticized, of course, but there’s no dodging the fact that he’s a handsome actor of considerable poise and charisma playing a decades-old period character in a film written and directed by an older white man. (Not unlike Mahershala Ali in Green Book.)
And there’s a fascinating violent moment in this film, by the way, that I haven’t mentioned. Racist skinhead goons are lurking on the fringes of this story, and early on a few of them are taunting Stephen on a sidewalk, and one strikes him with a head slap. And what does Stephen do? He does the smart thing by ignoring the attacker as he continues to walk away. He knows these animals are looking for an excuse to beat him senseless, and he doesn’t give them that.
A violent moment such as this runs against the presentism aesthetic. A Black man of today would never ignore or cower from an attack of this nature if it was depicted in a present-tense film. Our post-George Floyd mythology demands a greater measure of defiance and dignity. And yet Mendes, adhering to the ugly reality of things in rural 1980 England as much as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was truthfully immersed in the Los Angeles culture of the ‘70s, does the stand-up thing. I know that the instant I noticed Stephen’s reaction to the head slap, I went “wow…that’s unusual but then again that’s Mendes.”