Sam Mendes has recently been making very personal movies, driven by characters in very emotional times of upheaval. His previous film, the Academy Award® winner 1917, did just that against the backdrop of a crucial moment in World War I. Scaling back the conflict to a more personal level with his latest tale, EMPIRE OF LIGHT, Mendes pays tribute to his love for cinema through a bittersweet story of everyday life.
Starring Academy Award winner Olivia Colman, Sam Mendes’ return to the movies uses that very setting as inspiration. With an unassuming two screen theater on the English seaside as its venue, EMPIRE OF LIGHT shows the ups and downs of the employees who maintain this movie palace. All the while, the central emotional story gives us a window into the life of a woman in crisis, at the cusp of a new relationship.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, the first reactions are now being released into the wild. As EMPIRE OF LIGHT weaves a tale that takes place in and adjacent to the movie theatre in question, it shows us the people that help make the moviegoing experience so magical. More importantly, it celebrates the notion of cinema as a communal experience, no matter what side of the auditorium doors you stand on.
A Bittersweet Story Of Life
When we’re introduced to Hilary Small (Colman), the protagonist in EMPIRE OF LIGHT, mundanity is the best word to describe her day-to-day life. Working at the Empire Cinema in 1981, her role as a duty manager puts her in the orbit of a rather interesting work family. All the while, Hilary’s own personal struggles seem to put distance between her and everyone else.
That is, until a new hire by the name of Stephen (Micheal Ward) comes into her life. A young black man who fills a recent vacancy at the Empire, Hilary starts to develop a relationship that neither participant could have predicted. Starting around the end of 1980, and progressing through to 1981, EMPIRE OF LIGHT sees these two co-workers start to fall for each other, bringing out the best traits in their partnership.
Of course, it’s not all fairy tale romance, as Hilary’s past is slowly discussed in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Previous events left Olivia Colman’s central character in a less than ideal position, and she still seems to be dealing with the aftermath. While her new lease on life invigorates her, the threat of relapsing into chaos is always there. It’s the factor that keeps the audience on their toes, while also enjoying the vibrancy that slowly returns to Hilary Small.
Olivia Colman’s Devastating Performance
Throughout those ups and downs of Hilary’s life, we’re constantly treated to the masterful powers of actor Olivia Colman. Known best for her Academy Award winning role in THE FAVOURITE, as well as parts in films and TV shows like THE LOST DAUGHTER and FLEABAG, Colman once again fires on all cylinders in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. At times tender, and others devastating, it’s a performance that once again showcases her powerhouse abilities.
Portraying the emotional state of Hilary’s ever changing reality is the heart of what makes EMPIRE OF LIGHT work so brilliantly. Able to run the gamut when it comes to her character’s circumstances, Colman gets to do it all in her latest acting showcase. Starting with a baseline of more sober, serious behavior, the stoicism shown by Olivia Colman builds us up for the changes that take place throughout the rest of the movie.
For the most part, it’s Micheal Ward’s Stephen that gets to pair up with Colman’s Hilary, and the results are at times lovely and heartbreaking. A colorful cast of characters at the theatre also help make for exciting contrasts, and fellow expert actors like Toby Jones and Academy Award Winner Colin Firth are part of that very crew. No matter the mood or the scene, Olivia Colman devastates the audience throughout the entirety of EMPIRE OF LIGHT.
Cinema As A Community
While there have been plenty of movies that celebrate cinema as a dream weaving industry, EMPIRE OF LIGHT veers from that path with a crucial distinction. Sam Mendes, through his writing and directing of this film, pays tribute to the idea of the cinema itself as a community; which shows in his choice of the Empire Theatre as his central venue. Though we’re mostly invested in the life of Hilary, it’s her interactions with her fellow cinema employees in the operation of this setting that really build on this theme.
Changing times and deep seated prejudices expand the canvas of EMPIRE OF LIGHT, while also keeping Olivia Colman’s Hilary at the center of the frame. Though her life and those of her co-workers keep changing, what remains constant is the warmth and magic of cinema. In the moments where that theme is best featured, this film tends to allow something huge to happen. Be it happy or sad, comedic or tragic, it’s all part of the show.
EMPIRE OF LIGHT will start to tell its story of love, heartbreak, and cinema, in select theatres on December 9th. A wide release expansion is currently slated for debut on January 13, 2023; just in case you don’t happen to find a listing in your neck of the woods. Either way, you should keep a watchful eye open for when you’ll be able to purchase tickets to enjoy this film at your nearest AMC Theatres location. Where better to celebrate cinema as a community than at a theatre near you?EMPIRE OF LIGHT