Empire of Light

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Sara Stewart
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Runtime: 115 mins. Reviewed in Mar 2023
Reviewer: Peter W Sheehan
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Strong coarse language

This British-American romantic drama focuses on the power of human connection during difficult times, and is directed as a tribute to the magic of cinema.

Set in an English coastal town in 1981, the film is directed from a screenplay written by Sam Mendes, who also co-produced the movie. It has an atmospheric musical soundtrack and is richly photographed to convey the sensory impact of the scenes it displays. Colman stars, and was nominated as Best Actress in a Motion Picture in the 2023 Golden Globe Awards. The film has also been nominated for the quality of its cinematography in the 2023 Oscar Awards. It is the ninth film for Mendes as director, who is well known for his much acclaimed American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008).

Jones plays a kindly projectionist in a local, faded-art deco cinema by the seaside, named the Empire. He passes meaningful comments on how his projector and its visual displays work. Hilary Small (Colman) is the duty manager of the cinema, and enjoys the experience of cinema to release her from her obvious psychological distress. She finds herself fascinated by films such as Chariots of Fire (1981), and Being There (1979).

Hilary suffers from a bi-polar disorder, possibly schizophrenia, and lives alone on the coast of Kent near to the Empire cinema. As assistant manager of the cinema in Margate, she is also experiencing a joyless, passion-less affair with her ego-driven boss, Donald Ellis (Firth). Hilary forms a close relationship with a new employee, Stephen (Ward), who is hired as a movie usher in the cinema. He is attractive, witty and engaging, and is attracted to her. Hilary’s attraction to Stephen, and his feeling for her evoke strong reactions in the town that result in physical violence. Stephen is Black, and the town is filled with White supremacists, who are enraged by Black people’s demands in Britain for equal rights.

Stephen is a breath of fresh air in Hilary’s life. Hilary, however, suffers from constant depression and frequent mood swings, and complicates her life by publicly revealing her affair with Donald to Donald’s wife, Brenda (Stewart) just before a screening of Chariots of Fire. After Hilary forms a relationship with Stephen, Stephen is attacked, and brutalised by racial bigots in the town. Hospitalised with his injuries, he decides to leave. Hilary, overcome with emotion for a man she knows loves her, farewells Stephen, and goes on working at the Empire. As the film symbolically, the Empire cinema is throwing its light on “Being There”.

The film nostalgically traverses the boundary between normalcy and mental illness. It ties its plotlines together loosely, and attempts to address themes as broad as racial and sexual inequality, abuse of power in the workplace, and mental Illness (involving incest). Mendes directs the film expertly to show the splendour of cinema. The movie works excellently as an affectionate ode, and Colman excels as Hilary, who struggles with her feelings, and discovers that her relationship to Stephen has been a healing one for her.

This is a film that plays lovingly and creatively with the technology of cinema, and it is well directed by Mendes. The film addresses the technology of good film making in a stimulatingly way – the cinema screen is partitioned at telling emotional moments, for example; camera lighting is varied to create unusual special effects; and the film plays inventively with darkness and light in its series of eye-catching silhouettes. In this film, cinema is in the hands of a highly competent director.

The film is a visual treat and Mendes’ direction anchors the film’s plotline to complex social themes. The film urges redress of the tensions it raises, but resolution of them must wait for a different kind of movie. Racial bigotry obviously persists, and, as Mendes says, “that’s the situation”.

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