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Olivia Colman

“EMPIRE OF LIGHT” My rating: B (In theaters)

119 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Here’s a conundrum: Olivia Colman gives a world-class performance in a film that isn’t up to her standards.

Well, you take what you can get. And getting Colman at full throttle is nothing to dismiss.

In Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” Colman plays the assistant manager of a British cinema circa 1980.

Like the Empire Theater where she works, Colman’s Hilary has seen better days. There are references to a mental breakdown and hospitalization; currently she’s providing sexual favors to the movie house’s owner (Colin Firth), a middle-aged married man who thinks the other employees (mostly twentysomethings) don’t know what it means when he calls Hilary into his office to “discuss business.”

Mendes’ screenplay follows Hilary over the course of several months during which she initiates an affair with a new co-worker, Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is kind and caring and whose youth (he’s maybe 20 years her junior) lifts Hilary out of her her doldrums. Of course, this newfound zest for living may simply be an all-too-predictable upward swing of her manic-depressive condition.

And what goes up is bound to come down. Spectacularly.

Oh, one more thing. Stephen is black, a fact that bothers Hilary only inasmuch as the rise of Thatcher-inspired fascism puts her young lover in perennial jeopardy. Skinheads roam the streets of the seaside resort town in which the film unfolds, and late in the proceedings “Empire of Light” explodes into a full-throttle race riot.

In addition to the film’s social/racial elements, we cannot ignore that this story unfolds mostly in a movie theater. And a good old-fashioned movie palace makes for a pretty heady metaphor.

Still…I cannot be the only viewer anticipating a “Cinema Paradiso”-style wallow in the transcendent glories of the medium, in the movies’ ability to lift us out of our troubled reality and send us off on a journey of love, adventure and laughter.

Toby Jones, Micheal Ward

Except that it never materializes here. The closest we get are scenes with the semi-reclusive projectionist (Toby Jones, predictably great) who takes newcomer Stephen under his wing to explain the workings of the booth; clearly the man is obsessed with the whole cinematic process.

“Empire…” is always threatening to go flying off in different directions. It’s kept more or less on track by Colman, whose transition from drone to eager lover to basket case is heartbreakingly effective. My God, this woman may have the saddest eyes in movie history…yet when she’s called upon to express a girlish giddiness she radiates joy like a movie premiere klieg light.

Watching Hilary’s rise and fall, one is astounded by Colman’s jaw-dropping range and soulful presence. She can do sexy. She can do sad and pathetic. She’s a freakin’ miracle.

Given this, why didn’t I like “Empire of Light” more? Perhaps it is because it has been so obviously calculated to achieve its dramatic effects. The film is self-consciously morose and bereft of humor. By the last reel I found myself getting a bit P.O.’d.

It’s an uncharacteristically heavy-handed effort from Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “1917” and two Bond flicks). Here he’s like an architect who declares the job done while the workers’ scaffolding is still surrounding the building; the film’s intentions and narrative tricks could use some camouflage…a bit more finesse, please.

| Robert W. Butler

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