With only his second produced screenplay, after 1917, Sam Mendes delves into the territory of his formative years and a mood of nostalgia. The story he tells in Empire of Light isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it draws upon the music and movies and political climate that informed his coming-of-age — the movies especially. It’s not cinema with a capital “C” that Mendes is celebrating, but the kinds of popular features that shape memories and are indelibly associated with life passages. A valentine to celluloid that doesn’t entirely avoid self-consciousness, it’s a handsome film set mainly in a vintage gem of a movie palace on England’s southeastern coast. In the role of the troubled, dazzlingly resilient, poetry-loving manager of the theater, Olivia Colman delivers a stirring performance and some of her most affecting screen work to date.
As the story opens, 1980 is coming to a close and The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz are featured on the marquee of the Empire, a movie theater facing the seaside. The filmmakers resurrected a derelict cinema in Margate, with Mark Tildesley’s production design a rich but not overdone art deco marvel of burled wood panels and jewel-toned velvets. The elegant geometry is accentuated in the symmetrical compositions of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Mendes collaborator.
Empire of Light
The Bottom Line A crowd-pleasing, at times contrived showcase for a stellar Colman.
Colman’s Hilary, who often wears a stricken expression, is apparently recovering from a period of intense mental exhaustion, and being treated with what her doctor calls “marvelous stuff,” lithium. She eats Christmas dinner alone, but she hasn’t turned her back on life, attending dances and enjoying a collegial bond with her co-workers.
Most of the Empire’s crew is younger, including the punkish Janine (Hannah Onslow) and the observant and sympathetic junior manager, Neil (an endearing Tom Brooke). Closer to Hilary’s age is projectionist Norman, who’s played by Toby Jones in superb low-key form, making the character’s professional pride and love for the projection booth’s “complex machinery” utterly believable. The screenplay takes things a step too far, though, with his lofty pronouncements about the beam of light, the static frames, the optic nerve and the illusion of motion — all of which feel like authorial statements devoid of spontaneity, hitting the nail on the head, much like the movie’s title.
Hilary’s boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth, playing self-absorption to a T), is a humorless chap who regularly summons her to his office for sex in the shadows. When he and his wife (Sara Stewart) enter the same restaurant where she’s dining, Hilary, naturally, is the one who skedaddles. But with the arrival of a new employee, 20-ish Stephen (Micheal Ward, of the Netflix series Top Boy), things shift for her and she feels seen, tapping into reserves of joy and strength.
Their connection begins with his avid curiosity about the theater itself, which takes them to the abandoned upper floors, one of them a former ballroom — a vision of run-down glamour that’s as spectacular a piece of production design as the building’s still-functioning ground level. Pigeons have colonized the disused space, and Stephen’s healing way with an injured bird barely skirts pigeon-whisperer mawkishness — something the screenplay acknowledges with a bit of humor in a later exchange. That the Empire’s ghostly top floor soon becomes the site of passionate trysts between Hilary and Stephen is believable because of Colman’s vibrant vulnerability and Wald’s underplayed attraction to the older woman.
Mendes has planted his characters in a moment of time defined not just by Stir Crazy and Chariots of Fire, which, Ellis is proud to announce, will have its “regional gala premiere” at the Empire, but also by Thatcherism and racist skinhead violence. The racial theme is addressed with a touch that could have been lighter, rendering Wald’s character as someone more symbolic than fully fleshed — through no fault of the actor, who strikes intriguing, warm and sometimes inscrutable minor chords. As his mother, a single parent and nurse, Tanya Moodie makes an impression in her brief screen time, effortlessly demonstrating the source of Stephen’s integrity.
The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross taps into a nostalgic vein and the overall visual luster of the film, from the kaleidoscopic radiance of a funfair to the edge-of-the-world expanse of the shoreline. Tracks by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens are well used — particularly the latter’s “Morning Has Broken,” providing a melodic and jarring counterpoint to an unsettling scene in which Hilary is at her most precarious.
As to a climactic catastrophe involving gangs of violent racist goons, you can hear the narrative cogs turning, distracting from the point Mendes is making; the scene is far less convincing than Stephen’s charged confrontation with a nasty customer (Ron Cook). Nothing in the film has a fraction of the dramatic impact of the emotional roller-coaster Colman’s performance embodies — the way her face lights up or registers a slight, the way she rages against cruelty, or, especially, the way she crashes a well-heeled gathering with lipstick on her teeth and a few lines of Auden to share.