THB @Telluride 6: Empire of Light
It took 2 viewings of Sam Mendes’ brand new movie (locked 10 days ago) to figure out what wasn’t sitting quite right with me.
The film is a story about a middle-aged woman (the epic Olivia Colman) who is in a bad place in her life, though she gets some boost from working with a group of mostly younger people at The Empire theater on the coast of England. A young man (Michael Ward) comes into her life and they will help each other grow.
The movie theater is, to some degree, a background for a workplace story (though it becomes more at times). The way the theater is shot by Roger Deakins is, simply, breathtaking. And not in an overly showy way. You can hear the neon, you can smell the popcorn, and you can see the boring paint in just the way that feels right. Mostly, you can feel the comforting, sometimes overwhelming peace of sitting in a cinema.
I was completely with the film (and it’s award ambitions) until the end of the 2nd act/start of the 3rd act. And I can’t really explain why without extreme spoilers. Essentially a cut list, which I know is obnoxious. But I think the film would work much, much better with a handful of key cuts. Not reorganizing the movie, really. Addition by subtraction. These are cuts that seem clear to me, where Mendes does some interesting, complex work that simply takes the movie where it does not need to go in its third act and creates unneeded dead ends.
Problem is, I’m pretty sure I know why a couple of these sequences were not cut. They include Colman’s most explosive scene. And the apex of the race conversation in the film.
Lots of people will look past these issues and love the film. Many will be confused about why they aren’t more satisfied at the end.
There is so much to love here… but just as we are ready to get to the end, a couple new tracks are laid out and the just plain get in the way of the movie. In my opinion.
What’s quite remarkable is how comfortable Mendes makes us as he pushes quite a few boundaries in the heart of the story. Some truly wonderful work here.
The SPOILER cut list follows for paid subscribers…
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