For the last two years, people have been locked away due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and other various spreader events plaguing the world. When the lockdowns began, people were stuck at home, not able to go to the places that hold value in the life, like concert halls, restaurants, and for many, including me, the movie theater. The cinema is the one of the only places left where we can all come together, in a quite dark room in your local area, and envision new wonders that take our breath away and allow our imaginations to run wild. With his latest film, Empire of Light, director Sam Mendes takes the power of a local cinema house and shows how it can romance, frustrate, inspire, and unite those who step in through its doors.
Empire of Light starts in December 1980, as we find Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a theater manager for a local art house cinema on the shores of an English coastal city. From the opening frames of the film, we are lead through her morning in each room and station of the Empire theater with the help of the elegant new score by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the always brilliant cinematography of the legendary Roger Deakins, and the sharp editing by Lee Smith. It’s within these moments you start to feel a real kinship to this fictional palace of movie projection and can get you emotional given the current state of small, independent theaters across the globe.
As we settle in, we realize that Hilary is a quiet soul that mostly keeps to herself. She works with a hardworking staff, including Norman (Tom Brooke), who helps in the box office, Janine (Hannah Onslow), an usher, and Norman (Toby Jones), the wise projectionist. It is clear that something is bothering Hilary, as her Christmas is spent alone, and she never shows interest in going out with the staff after work. We come to find out that she recently has a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for it. Her physician is prescribing her lithium, thus keeping her balanced in life, but not giving her any sense of purpose. She goes to work, does her tastes, and occasionally has sex with her sleazy boss (Colin Firth), but feels nothing from any of it. She doesn’t even take in going to a film at the theater. But all of that changes when Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee, is hired on the week of New Year’s.
In showing him the ropes on his first day of work, Hilary takes him through all the parts of the theater we see in the opening and then some, as they go to the second level of the Empire that has been closed off for years, and we see these two strangers gain a bond in this forgotten place. Stephen himself is lonely, as most of his friends have gone off to university, leaving him to get a job while his mother Delia (Tanya Moodie) works long shifts at the local hospital. His optimism and warmth are new for Hilary, and something she grows a fancy to the more they start to work together. On the night of New Year’s Eve, as she is closing shop before going to the roof to watch the fireworks, Stephen shows up, so that she wouldn’t be alone. It’s in this act she lets them, and as they are talking, Hilary kisses him, leading to days layer the two starting a low-key romantic relationship.
The age difference between the two isn’t a concern at all in the film, but rather the fact that it is a biracial coupling in the 1980s when England was at moral unrest due to the reign of Margaret Thatcher and the rise of the radical right within the country. We see multiple times where they must hide their affections in public, from a simple kiss to Stephen putting his arm around her shoulder when she is on the bus. As societal tensions rise, and Stephen faces attacks and public racism, he decides to put a pause on his romance with Hilary, which causes her to lose control of her mental status and sent her spiraling down.
Mendes came up with the concept for Empire of Light under quarantine in 2020, as he was watching what was going on with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the pandemic destroying the theater industry, and the urge to always wanting to study mental illness in some sort of fashion. In doing so, he stepped away from the epic scope he has been playing with for some time and gone back to his theater, character study roots that he introduced to audiences a couple of decades ago. In order for this all to work, Mendes mentioned at the Telluride premiere of the film that all these ideas came the moment he saw The Crown and found that Colman would be a perfect Hilary.
In just a short amount of time, Olivia Colman has become our finest actress working today, giving magnificent, layered performances, and with Hilary, she is at the top of her game. She balances internal sadness, jealousy, rage all with a touch of humor and modern sensuality. Colman makes Hilary more than a standard caricature of someone struggling with mental illness, but rather, she delivers a person we can sympathize and relate to given the fact that all she needs is someone or something to hold onto into this world, a partner, a job, or a cinema on the beach. While we expect this layered work from Colman, it is her scene partner, Micheal Ward that steals the show and creates a perfect star turning performance. Ward provides the side of the film Colman can’t, a world that is out to get him and there is nothing he can do to stop it. he seeks opportunity but during this time, there is no place for him, and while a smile on his face, there is pain under his eyes displaying Stephen’s own fears. A scene where an audience member berates and undermines Stephen in front of the whole staff for being a black person shows the stature and command Ward brings to the screen. He looks the man dead in the eye with distain and fire of an actor who was perfectly casted for this role. Match this with every scene he is in with Colman, where he goes toe to toe with one of the best cinema has to offer today, and you’ve got a noteworthy performance that ranks as one of the best so far.
Some minor quibbles are the arrangement of events within the final scenes of the film and how it feels as if the movie should end sooner, as well as possibly adding some more depth to Toby Jones’s Norman, who is fantastic in the short runtime he possesses in the final runtime. But this doesn’t deter from Mendes and company overall message, that we need the cinema to save us from ourselves and give us the second chance we might need. It is a place that brings the solace we crave as a society, because once you sit down, you are having an emotional, transformational experience, but like Hilary and Stephen. It doesn’t matter if the picture is good or not, because that feeling of being there won’t go away, leaving you exactly where Mendes wants you.
This review is from the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release Empire of Light only in theaters on December 9.