Empire of Lightthe new film by Sam Mendes, is a story that exudes passion for cinema, a film full of memories, nostalgia, magic and celluloid dreams. It’s a film that comes within walking distance (it’s in our theaters since March 2) of another film that has a similar theme, The Fabelmans by Steven Spielberg, and a year or so from two other films which, speaking of cinema, characterized last season, Belfast ed It was the hand of God. All movies that, in particular The Fabelmanseveryone agreed. Empire of Light, which has a very particular tone, has divided instead. And it left the members of the Academy very lukewarm: only one Oscar nomination, the one for best photography, to a sacred monster like Roger Deakins. Perhaps Sam Mendes’ film would have deserved a few more nominations. But what is sure that Deakins nomination is well deserved. His work on the photography of a film which, right from the title, makes light its fulcrum, is extraordinary.
Empire of Light is a mood landscape
A famous English writer, Jonathan Coe, in his book The gang of crooks, wrote that in England, in the seventies, everything was plain brown. In Empire of Light at the beginning of the story we are in 1981 but, being a provincial town on the sea, everything seems to have remained in the seventies, if not even earlier. Roger Deakins is extraordinary in recreating, especially in the daytime exteriors, and also in certain interiors, a certain monochrome, a soft color palette, in shades of brown. That of Empire of Light it is a mood landscape, which, thanks to the dull colors, evokes a way of being. The boredom, the monotony, the banality of provincial life. Depression, the pain of living, of the protagonist, Hilary, played by a great Olivia Colman.
Empire of Light, the review: Sam Mendes and a (tender) film that chases the light
It looks like an Edward Hopper painting
But that brown, that uniform color is only the background, the canvas on which Master Roger Deakins then paints with strong color brushstrokes. Film critic Michele Anselmi, with a perfect expression, defines Empire of Light “glazed by Roger Deakins photography“. It’s perfect because Deakins impresses on that canvas rich, dense, mellow colors, sometimes warmer, sometimes colder. When we see those exteriors, at night, lit up with neon lights, we seem to be in a painting of Edward Hopperin one of those works such as The Nighthawks (The Hawks of the Night). There are reds, whites, bright yellows. Above all, the sign of the Empire cinema stands out, written in capital letters, with the letters mounted vertically, an intense and decisive yellow light. Deakins manages to take the pink neon of the Roller Disco, that mix between disco and skating rink that was used in the eighties, and turn them into poetry. It is as if these signs are dictating a message. To break the monotony of a provincial town, even ignorant and racist (as we shall see), to illuminate the lives of those who live there are culture, cinema and entertainment. About The Nighthawksthe atmospheres of that painting can also be found in that now abandoned diner/ballroom which would be the third floor of the Empire cinema.
Experience the magic of cinema without showing the screen
But there is another painting by Edward Hopper that we find in Empire of Light. AND New York Movie, a painting showing the interior of a cinema hall. And in the rare moments when we enter the theater proper from the other rooms of the cinema, there are those red velvets, those Art Deco architectures, that darkness in the hall illuminated here and there by a few dim lights. That painting, curiously, shows furnishings, drapes, architectural details. The screen is only in a small portion of the figure, top left, a gray color that evokes a black and white film. We don’t see what film is being watched in that hall, but we know that there is a large screen there and we feel the power of the cinema, it reaches us completely, because we know the experience that whoever is in that hall is having. It is remarkable that Sam Mendes, in Empire of Light, do just that. May it make us experience the magic of cinema, feel the emotion of those who go to the theater, and those who work in that cinema, without ever showing the screen, without ever letting a frame pass. If not at the end.
Roger Deakins: Lifetime Achievement Award for Empire of Light and Fargo cinematographer
Roger Deakins takes the sky and sets it on fire
Alongside strong colours, Roger Deakins also paints pastel shades, the softer colors of a day at Luna Park, in the sunlight. And then at night, he once again takes the sky and sets it on fire, like he did in the finale of Heavy rain (James Bond film directed by Sam Mendes). This time the sky is black, but Deakins lights it up with fireworks, again a landscape mood, because there is turmoil in the hearts of the protagonists. Or again, he takes that background of the dark sky on the seafront, and with the lights of the street lamps that run along the shore he creates yellow brushstrokes that, faded into the background, look like those of an abstract painting.
Cinema, the empire of light
A movie like Empire of Light it’s the realm of Roger Deakins. The title refers to the name of the cinema, of course. But it is clearly a play on words to define cinema, “the empire of light”. Which then is a definition that would also be perfect as the title of a review on Roger Deakins, a cinematographer who, as such, makes his work with light, and has done it magnificently for years. The Master here is in the world of him, because Empire of Light is also a profound reflection on the cinema as magic of light. “I don’t want him to know“says the projectionist about the huge projectors that stand in his booth. “The audience just needs to see a beam of light“. And it’s true. Without seeing where it comes from, seeing only that thread of light where the dust swarms, it seems that the cinema does not come from something concrete, but that it is a set of particles that arrived from who knows where, which in that road of light take shape and transform into an image once they arrive on the screen. “They are just static frames with darkness in between” explains the man (a great Toby Jones). “But at 24 frames per second we don’t perceive the dark”. Like that song said, it’s kind of like magic. The magic of cinema, the magic of light. And Roger Deakins, more than ever, is today the emperor of that light.
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