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The reason almost all filmmakers start making movies is because they fell in love with movies at a young age. Plenty of directors have attempted to demonstrate that love by making a movie about their experience, sometimes literally and other times filtered through another type of story. The result is typically well done, as the person telling the story fights to get every detail just right.
The latest to do so is writer/director Sam Mendes with Empire of Light. Taking place almost exclusively in and around a movie theater named Empire Cinema on the south coast of England in 1980, the film centers on Hilary (Olivia Colman), the theater’s duty manager whose life consists of work and little else. She gets along with her colleagues at work, save for Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), the boss with whom she is having a deeply unsatisfying affair.
Her life starts to change with the hiring of Stephen (Micheal Ward), a college-aged Black man. The two strike up a quick bond and soon embark on a mostly-platonic relationship, connecting over their appreciation of the theater’s history, their respective life struggles, and the shared love of movies they rarely get to watch themselves.
The film is literally surrounded by the idea and allure of movies, but it rarely becomes about them. Notable films like 9-to-5, The Elephant Man, Chariots of Fire, Stir Crazy, Raging Bull, and Being There make their way through the theater, but the characters, busy with their own work, discuss them sparingly. Cinephiles will relish the look back to this particular period in film history, but Mendes keeps the story in check by not going too deep in the minutiae of the movies themselves.
Instead, he keeps the focus on the characters, most of whom bring something interesting to the table. Hilary and Stephen get the most attention, and the film delves into some serious issues through their lives. But equally engaging are other theater employees like Janine (Hannah Oslow), Neil (Tom Brooke), and especially projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), whose quiet demeanor belies a wealth of knowledge.
Mendes, who was last seen wowing with the “one-take” World War I film 1917, brought in the big guns for this passion project, featuring not just two Oscar-winning actors in his cast, but also two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and two-time Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, among others. The behind-the-scenes artists do yeoman’s work, with Deakins bringing every corner of the cinema to glorious life, and Reznor and Ross utilizing a tender, piano-based score to accentuate the themes of the film.
There are a few creaky elements, most notably the lack of examination of similarities between Hilary being used for sex by Mr. Ellis and her pursuing a relationship with Stephen. The same power dynamic of boss and employee exists in each pairing, yet the former is portrayed as utterly toxic while the latter is mostly given a pass.
Colman has reached a new level as an actor in her forties, garnering three Oscar nominations and one win in just the past four years (not to mention an Emmy for playing Queen Elizabeth on The Crown). She is as good as ever here, exploring huge swings of emotion with relative ease. Ward has an ease about him that makes his character pop immediately, indicating he should be able to expand beyond the British film/TV scene if casting directors are smart.
Empire of Light is a period piece layered with some modern sensibilities and, of course, a love for the magic of movies. Mendes keeps the film on an even keel for the most part, telling a story that’s relatively small yet still totally cinematic.
Empire of Light opens in select theaters on December 9.