EMPIRE OF LIGHT
THREE AND A HALF STARS Hilary sells tickets at the Empire movie theatre. Her life changes when Stephen joins the staff.
DRAMA UK English #EMPIREOFLIGHT
Starring Olivia Colman, Colin Firth
You could never accuse Sam Mendes of being stuck in a groove. The British director behind AMERICAN BEAUTY, JARHEAD, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, SKYFALL and 1917 - right there is powerfully varied CV of acclaimed filmmaking - has become more introspective with this much smaller, more nuanced and personal tale. Ironically, it’s also a more complicated and perhaps less focussed story than many of his larger, more sprawling films.
Ostensibly this is a movie about the power of movies; how they create a safe space to open worlds and open minds is certainly a tenant of EMPIRE OF LIGHT. But largely it’s a backdrop for other ideas closer to Mendes’ heart: discrimination, mental health, the power to heal. These are themes that have filtered throughout his work and allowed him to make the best Bond film ever: discuss. The problem is that ultimately, there are a few too many ideas and they don’t realise a satisfying whole. While a few hit their mark, some drift inconclusively and others are dropped altogether.
It’s 1981 and in the English seaside town of Margate, the Empire movie theatre is a beacon of entertainment. Hilary (Olivia Colman) looks after the ticket counter and occasionally her boss (Colin Firth). She works, she goes home, she never watches the movies. Things change when she is given a young employee to train; Stephen (Michael Ward) arrives wide eyed and caught up in the history and ritual of movies. He flicks a switch in Hilary who becomes, if not alive, certainly more animated. Yet the Empire may not be the safe space they think it is; there’s racial tension without and emotional tension within. Something’s going to snap.
Fundamentally EMPIRE OF LIGHT is a film about running a theatre and at that level it’s a treat. From Toby Jones forthright projectionist (without whom no one would have a job) to securing the local premiere of CHARIOTS OF FIRE, it feels real and heart felt. You can smell the popcorn. Scenes between Hilary and Stephen are no less wonderful as they turn from workmates to lovers despite Hilary’s fragile mental health. It has cost her employment and friendships before and is likely to again. With race riots breaking into the Empire and Stephen’s mother troubled by his ‘relationship’ with an older, white, woman, there are many great moments. However the two aspects of the film don’t always sit well together, and the director seems unable to find a way to smooth out all the wrinkles.
Even so, a near miss from Mendes is still a compelling drama. With the acclaimed Roger Deakins behind the camera and Colman, Firth, Jones and the eye-catching Ward in front, there's a lot of star wattage on display. EMPIRE OF LIGHT shines, even if it’s not as brightly as you may be hoping for.