Empire of Light
Olivia Colman is stunning — again — in this 80s-set drama from '1917' director Sam Mendes about the staff at a seaside cinema.
March 02, 2023
They don't call it movie magic for nothing, as plenty of Hollywood's leading lights have made it their mission to stress. A filmmaker's work should ideally make that statement anyway — seeing any picture and taking any trip to the pictures should, not that either always occurs — but overt odes to cinema still flicker with frequency. Across little more than 12 months, Kenneth Branagh's Belfast has featured a scene where his on-screen childhood alter ego basks in the silver screen's glow, and Damien Chazelle's Babylon made celebrating Hollywood and everything behind it one of its main functions. With The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg revisited his formative years, following the makings of a movie-obsessed kid who'd become a movie-making titan. Now 1917, Skyfall, Spectre and American Beauty director Sam Mendes adds his own take with Empire of Light, as also steeped in his own youth.
A teenager in the 70s and 80s, Mendes now jumps back to 1980 and 1981. His physical destination: the coastal town of Margate in Kent, where the Dreamland Cinema has stood for exactly 100 years in 2023. In Empire of Light, the gorgeous art deco structure has been rechristened The Empire. It's a place where celluloid dreams such as The Blues Brothers, Stir Crazy, Raging Bull and Being There entertain the masses, and where a small staff under the overbearing Donald Ellis (Colin Firth, Operation Mincemeat) all have different relationships with their own hopes and wishes. As projectionist Norman, Toby Jones (The Wonder) is Mendes' mouthpiece, waxing lyrical about the transporting effect of images running at 24 frames per second and treasuring his work sharing that experience. Empire of Light is that heavy handed, and in a multitude of ways. But duty manager Hilary (Olivia Colman, Heartstopper) and new employee Stephen's (Micheal Ward, Small Axe) stories are thankfully far more complicated than simply adoring cinema.
Actually, despite spending her days slinging £1.50 tickets and popcorn, Hilary has never seen a movie at The Empire. That might seem unlikely, but it's a crucial and thoughtful character detail. Navigating a journey with her mental health, her conscientiousness at work helps her to keep busy away from her lonely apartment. Having spent a lifetime thinking little of herself, she doesn't for a moment contemplate enjoying what her workplace sells (the fact that it's where she's being taken advantage of sexually by Donald also leeches joy from her view of the place). Accordingly, she has a stronger affinity for the venue's empty third and fourth screens, both of which have been shuttered — plus the upstairs bar that services them — and allowed to fall into pigeon-filled disrepair. When Empire of Light begins, Hilary has recently returned from a hospital stint, too, and the lithium her doctor has prescribed since is stifling.
Watching someone go through the motions in a place that's all about motion, possibility, and shiny visions of other lives and realms paints a powerful portrait, with Mendes — who writes his first-ever solo feature script in addition to directing — crafting a keen character study layered with symbolism. Welcomely, when Stephen arrives to break up The Empire's routine, he's never merely a catalyst in another's tale or an emblem of Britain's struggles with race. Empire of Light takes the time to chart his path as well, including the discrimination he faces walking down the street; his devotion to his single mum, Trinidadian nurse Delia (Tanya Moodie, The Man Who Fell to Earth); and his growing romance with Hilary. Stephen's story is a coming-of-age story, all about finding himself in and through a space where audiences flock to find everything imaginable. So too is Hilary's, of course.
That said, it's easy to see how Stephen could've just been a device, helping to keep the plot turning and Hilary's tale progressing, if someone other than Ward had taken on the part. His is a rich, sincere and soulful performance, playing a young Black man with the clearest of eyes as he surveys a hostile Thatcher-era England, yet remaining kind and caring — to people and injured birds alike — and perennially optimistic. Holding one's own against Colman is no mean feat; this film's own light largely beams from the pair. Whether they're sharing a frame or taking centre stage alone, they're always a key force drawing viewers in, no matter how forceful Mendes is with his cinema-conquers-all message (and how adamantly the score by Bones and All's Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is telling the audience what to feel).
What a stunning portrayal Colman delivers beside Ward; Hilary was written specifically for her, unsurprisingly, and plays that way at all times. Saying that the Oscar- and Emmy-winner — for The Favourite and The Crown, respectively — is phenomenal in any role is like saying that popcorn is salty, but it doesn't make it any less true (as her recent work in Landscapers, The Lost Daughter and The Father also demonstrates). Deep-seated sorrow and heartbreak lingers in Hilary in Empire of Light, and not just because the screenplay says it must. The talented actor is a marvel at not only opening up a character's inner tussles and emotions in her gaze and stance, but making them feel hauntingly real, which Mendes makes exceptional use of. It's no wonder that the movie peers at her face often — a face that makes its own case for movie magic whether it's staring intently at Hilary's latest cinema task, revelling in Stephen's company or breaking down at The Empire's big moment: the glitzy regional premiere of Chariots of Fire.
Alongside Colman and Ward, the man responsible for Empire of Light's gaze — and lighting it — is the feature's other immense and essential asset. Just like the film's two key actors, Roger Deakins' impact is so pivotal that this'd be a completely different movie sans his input. Earning the picture's only Academy Award nomination — his 16th, fresh from consecutive wins for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917 — he ensures that every shot speaks volumes about The Empire and the people who consider it a type of home. Sometimes, he achieves that by mirroring the big screen's frame, finding other frames to place around the picture's characters where possible, and stressing that everyone's tale is worth telling. Sometimes, too, he actively seeks out reflections, nodding to how cinema interacts with the world around it while also literally showing multiple sides of a character at once. That's movie magic alright, and Empire of Light is at its best when it lets its craft demonstrate cinema's glory itself.
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