Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes is undoubtedly one of the most original artists working in cinema today. With a career stretching back to 1999s American Beauty, with a noted theatre career beforehand, he is a director who has continually challenged himself with multiple genre projects and whose movies inspire, provoke and enchant audiences. Now with Empire of Light, he crafts a love letter to the cinema art form and it is his most poignant and personal film experience yet.
Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), duty manager of a seaside cinema, who is struggling with her mental health, forms a relationship with a new employee (Michael Ward) on the south coast of England in the 1980s.
When it comes to the auteur voices of the cinema one of the giants of the medium is undoubtedly Sam Mendes. With a talent for the dramatic and a penchant for telling deeply character-driven works that examine the human experience, his films always draws the audiences’ attention. With Empire of Light, he crafts a poignant and moving love letter to the power of the cinematic art form, and it is a deeply personal story. Audiences who walk into Empire of Light may be expecting one kind of cinematic experience, but they will be met with something quite different. Or at least that’s what I was expecting. I had expected a whirlwind dramatic epic of the cinema, but instead, I was greeted with a soft, slow-burn story of a closed-off romance and a deep desire for acceptance. And I was absolutely spellbound by all of it.
Empire of Light is a presentation of both the beautiful and the haunting, a story of love and madness, of deep empathy and fraught emotions. It is a story of the human experience, set against the magic of the cinema, and audiences will be reeled in by Mendes’ gift for narrative with this one. Mendes slowly unwinds this film, and it plays out almost like a scrapbook of nostalgic memories. Pulling ideas and feelings from his own past, Empire of Light is an incredibly personal film from Mendes and its presentation is highly meditative. Emphasis is placed on imagery and sound over dialogue and exposition, and the audience finds its way into the ordinary life of a character who desires to belong above all else and who eventually is drawn to the power of cinema as a means of healing and affirmation.
Standing in as the protagonist of this dramatic work is Academy Award winner Olivia Colman and she has never been better in a role. Given the strength and dynamism of her performance, Colman falls away and instead audiences follow the life and emotional journey of Hilary Small, the duty manager of The Empire, a small cinema in England’s Southern Coast in the turbulent 1980s where Thatcher’s Britain is beginning to divide itself, and where a simmering hate is about to explode. Lonely, isolated and battling severe mental illness, Hilary is a character of extremes whose diagnosis sees her pulled from side to side and trying to overcome a secret she just wants to run away from. Colman’s performance is both brave and compassionate and she presents a complete portrait of Hilary as deserving of love and eventually opening up to the goodness that surrounds her.
Circling Hilary is a dynamic group of characters who are all parts of her journey and each is a testament to Mendes’s command for story and eye for casting. Micheal Ward makes an impression as Stephen, a young man who finds more than he bargained for with his summer job at the cinema and whose volatile affair with Hilary leads to plenty of surprises. Academy Award winner Colin Firth makes an abrupt term as the despicable and repellant Donald Ellis, the Empire’s owner, and its a side to Firth many audiences have never seen and she’s particularly unpleasant in the part. Then there’s Toby Jones as Norman, the Empire’s projectionist who is the conscience of the picture, and whose wizardry behind the curtain is by which the magic makes its way on screen.
Empire of Light is first and foremost a cinema spectacle and is required to watch on the silver screen. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins brings his masterful eye to work with this picture and his control of light and colour catches the attention of the audience. Mixing in earthy colours with the open blues and hard whites of the seaside makes for an incredibly interesting image, and there is depth and beauty in all the shadows of this picture. The film’s grain and quality are reminiscent of the film’s 1980s setting and Deakins draws on his younger years as a documentarian in capturing the details of the picture. It all adds up to a beautiful sense of ambience and is another example of the power and serenity of why movies matter.
A great sense of compassion and empathy is present in Empire of Light as Mendes explores the pain of mental health, and he does not shy away from the extremity of Hilary’s battle with bipolar disorder. There is no judgment or criticism from Mendes towards Hilary, instead, he presents her as a character who is trying to do her best in such a turbulent time. Juxtaposing Hilary’s journey to recovery is a story of the power of cinema and the enchanting joy of why audiences continually search for its warmth and stories. Empire of Light is Mendes’ love letter to a medium that means so much to him, and filmgoers who share his passion will be enchanted by this picture.
Empire of Light is a deeply poetic piece of cinema to behold and audiences will feel its beauty and narrative in their very souls. It is a love letter to the majesty of cinema.
Image: 20th Century Studios