Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes
Starring: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Monica Dolan, Tom Booke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones and Colin Firth
Sam Mendes follows up his World War I epic 1917 with Empire of Light, a loving tribute to cinema, and art in general. The film is set in a cinema on the coast of England during the early 1980s, following the lives of the people who work there. It’s sentimental and also at points a harrowing drama about every aspect of life you can think of, and at its centre it shows how art comforts and unites us.
You can tell from the first few moments, as the opening titles start to appear on screen accompanied by the beautiful score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, that this is going to be a sentimental film about cinema. It starts with the Empire Cinema getting ready for the working day, the confectionary being lit up along with the popcorn, the screens, and there’s a gentleness to it all. Then almost immediately the film gets darker with Colin Firth’s character being introduced, Donald Ellis. He’s very sinister and someone who’s clearly taking advantage of the main character Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), who seems to be struggling with life. Something’s happened in her past, that’s only really hinted at throughout the film, that’s left a mark on her. The film contrasts the beauty of art with the horrible realities of life.
Everyone in the cast is brilliant. The performances absolutely bring this film together and make it something worth watching. Colman gives an emotional and heart-breaking performance as Hilary, someone who is on the verge of having a breakdown. There’s always a sense that she’s one bad moment away from tragedy and it’s horrible to watch, especially with her interactions with Colin Firth. Toby Jones is also excellent, playing the projectionist at the cinema, Norman, who treats cinema with such sincere reverence that his passion seeps through the screen. Michael Ward is great as Stephen, the newest employee at the cinema who grows close to Hilary quite quickly. Stephen is facing racism that is becoming more common as the 1980s continue. His experience is gut-wrenching, and it really hits because of how great Ward is.
Sadly, the film is a little messy. There are a lot of ideas floating about in the film which does mean it loses some focus at points. It’s a love-letter to cinemas, the anonymity of watching a film in a room with a group of strangers and experiencing something together. It’s also about the joy and inclusivity that art brings in all forms, whether it’s cinema, poetry or music. There are moments where it touches on the growing racial tensions in the early eighties (which sadly still seems relevant forty-years-plus later), which is harrowing and hard to watch. It’s also a love story between Hilary Small and Stephen, who are separated not just by the large age gap, but also by race. On top of that it’s also about mental illness and the abuse of power.
It’s a lot to take in and not all of it works. You could wipe out Colin Firth’s character almost completely and not lose much. The relationship between Hilary and Stephen works better when it’s platonic and just two people who are connected by both being outsiders even if they’re nothing alike on the surface. At its best moments it focuses on both the small and insular problems that Hilary is struggling with, as well as the much wider issues in society and that both have to be tackled at the same time by many people. The sentimentality towards cinema bringing joy to people’s lives also works really well and really drives home the importance of art, especially with how it brings us closer together.
Despite how messy the plot is, it’s all brought together by a stunning cast, excellent cinematography from Roger Deakins, as well as a moving and subtle score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Empire of Light is ambitious and while not everything sticks it’s emotional, funny, and heartfelt. It may not be something that’s going to change your life and stay in your mind for a very long time, but it’s definitely enjoyable while you’re watching it.
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