Olivia Colman in "Empire of Light."

Olivia Colman in "Empire of Light." Credit: 20th Century Studios

PLOT Movie theater employees fall in love in seaside England, circa the early 1980s.
CAST Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones
RATED R (sexual content, language and brief violence)
WHERE Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Beautiful and well-acted, but too hollow.

The title of "Empire of Light" refers to the magic of the movies, the construction of whole worlds out of a beam of flickering light and the illusion of motion.

Yes, it's another major filmmaker's ode to the cinema, arriving in theaters just weeks after Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans." This time, Oscar winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") waxes rhapsodic about the medium, albeit from the perspective of the staff at a small theater on England's South Coast in the early 1980s.

Any movie about the movies ought to look beautiful, and "Empire of Light" offers a sumptuous visual feast. Mendes works with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins once again (their last collaboration, "1917," earned Deakins an Oscar) and there's not a frame that lacks an evocative, perfectly lit image.

Wide shots mix touches of the movie palace age that had long since ended by the events of the picture with manifold signs of decay. Sweeping images of the inside of the main auditorium, with its screen draped in a vivid red curtain, contrast with the ruin on the upper floors of the cinema, where two screens sit abandoned and what was once a glamorous restaurant/lounge now rests unoccupied.

That contrast gets reflected in a narrative that focuses on two theater employees: duty manager Hillary (Olivia Colman) and new hire Stephen (Micheal Ward). They're drawn together by a shared loneliness, and find a balm in the romance that develops. But the weight of past experiences cannot be overcome through secret trysts and trips to the beach. 

"Empire of Light" desperately needs some element to shake things up. The resplendence can be suffocating; the movie looks so good it scarcely seems real. 

The burden to inject some frailty, some human messiness into the story falls entirely on Colman. She's obviously great — good luck finding a performance from her that isn't — and handles the depiction of her character's mental health struggles with sensitivity. 

But her story never registers quite as it should because it rarely seems to be more than a distraction from the movie's real focus: the movies themselves. Mendes' screenplay relies excessively on platitudes about the wonder of cinema — how "that little beam of light is escape" — and an obvious nostalgic affection for the filmgoing experiences of his youth.

It's a favorite subject for filmmakers of all stripes and sure to be for as long as movie buffs keep making movies. But there's a thin line between affection and myopia; "Empire of Light" skews too heavily toward the latter.

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