Empire of Light

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Empire of Light
dir-scr Sam Mendes
prd Pippa Harris, Sam Mendes
with Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Monica Dolan, Sara Stewart, Ron Cook, Tanya Moodie, Justin Edwards
release US 9.Dec.22,
UK 13.Jan.22
22/UK Searchlight 1h59

firth jones dolan
london film fest

Is it streaming?

ward and colman
Writer-director Sam Mendes packs too much into this personal 1980s drama. Infused with a love of cinema, the central storyline takes on loneliness, racism, sexual harassment and mental illness, which is a lot for such a warmly beautiful film. But if any actress can bridge this material together it's Olivia Colman, who radiates emotional resonance that brings focus to each theme and makes this well worth a look.
It's Christmas 1980 in Margate. Hilary (Colman) manages the Empire Cinema, which is showing The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz on its two screens. And married manager Ellis (Firth) expects her to provide extra services in his office. The staff includes lively team members Neil and Janine (Brooke and Onslow), protective projectionist Norman (Jones) and handsome young newcomer Stephen (Ward). Everyone expects Stephen to take up with Janine, but he has an eye on Hilary instead. And as they get to know each other, Hilary becomes so happy that she stops taking her meds.
Gloriously photographed by Roger Deakins with a strongly evocative score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the film is packed with magical moments. Hilary shows Stephen closed off areas of the once-grand cinema, including a ballroom overlooking the seafront and a rooftop viewing deck. And Stephen shows Hilary the compassion she so badly needs, even as he's dealing with increasingly nasty attacks from racist skinheads who are fuelled by Thatcher's nationalistic rhetoric. These ideas swirl together a bit uneasily, but each element is depicted with skill and insight.

Colman's performance is a thing of wonder, tightly contained at the start, then loosening as Hilary comes out of her shell and sheds those personality-dulling drugs. Of course, this leads to some very big scenes, but Colman maintains a wonderful sense of Hilary's inner humanity through all of it, finding laughter amid the tears. Her chemistry with the terrific Ward is beautifully played, as is her growing frustration at Ellis, played by Firth with superbly pinched entitlement.

Connections between the various themes in this overlong movie are tenuous, but then it's also right there all along in the escapist power of the movies. Mendes lovingly portrays the workings of old-style film projectors, lingers on snack bar delicacies and peppers fabulous period posters in the background. And when Norman is finally allowed to screen whatever movie he wants, his selection shouldn't come as a surprise. But it does, and it artfully links a variety of ideas while making us want to revisit a classic.

cert 15 themes, language. violence, sexuality 10.Oct.22

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall