Review: Empire of Light

Empire of Light movie poster

An emotionally complex but peacefully affecting story about two people finding some solace with each other.

Written and directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917) Empire of Light follows the story of Hilary, (Olivia Colman) a woman struggling with her mental health while working at an Empire cinema in coastal England. When new hire Stephen (Micheal Ward) arrives, the two find some solace with each other’s company. But times are fraught; Hilary’s mental health declines, suffering from mood swings of great intensity, while the cinema manager (a positively slimy Colin Firth) takes advantage of her. Stephen, too, has social pressures of 1980s Britain…

The film is very close to brilliant.
Our troubled protagonist Hilary, works at a cinema probably built in the 60s or 70s, and with the film set in the 1980s, there is a wonderful retro aesthetic to the set. Indeed, this living, breathing location feels lived in and authentic. For anyone who has worked in cinemas, you’ll find a lot of familiarity at the film’s opening moments. Inane chatter while cleaning the theatres, to the hidden wonderland that is (or perhaps, was) the projectionist areas. It is very nostalgic for very specific reasons.

Olivia Colman in Empire of Light
Been there!

Then the film got real horny.
Probably the most horny cinema imaginable.

Stephen arrives at the cinema as a new worker, and he is full of positivity and optimism like a lot of new starts often are. But the two women working there fall for him immediately, especially Hilary. The two develop a strong relationship that both blows away Hilary’s inner demons and eases Stephen’s social worries but it also reveals these issues to one another.

The film’s main strength is Olivia Colman’s performance in Hilary; delivering an incredibly intense character who is extremely warm and welcoming, but also harbours a deep, angry rage that has been bottled up. The other characters are merely instances for Hilary to react to. Less so is Stephen, whose charming exterior is a veneer over doubt and fear; the waves of racism brewed under the 1980s Thatcher-ruled Britain.
There is something of an examination of the British personality in the film; the need, the self-imposed requirement to hide problems and bury issues rather than address them… Both Hilary and Stephen are representations of this.
There is a lot of passion in the film, and not just of a sexual nature. There are two good scenes of Toby Jones’s character Norman, the projectionist, with one of which being his love for cinema. There is a theme of the magic of cinema; how it can bring people together, the comfortable darkness and the illusion of still imagery being brought to life in a beam of light. It is, for a film reviewer, very moving and compelling.

Olivia Colman and Michael Ward in Empire of Light
Hilary and Stephen enjoy a day out away from… people.

The film does feel cumbersome with all of these different themes: mental health, racism, British society, cinema. It feels like two stories competing for attention. Each theme is wonderfully, gravely, brilliantly executed with the performances and the direction, but there doesn’t always seem like they are synergised together. Toby Jones’s Norman gives a speech on cinema’s near magical, illusory powers, how with the speed of the frames the human eye is tricked, seeing harmonious movement. Is that a suggestion that cinema brings people together, forgetting social and racial backgrounds?
That is the sort of tenuous connective tissue that holds all of the themes together. Your mileage may vary on its effectiveness.

Overall, Empire of Light is a very good movie. It has very hard moments of fraught emotions, but also stretches of tranquillity and needed sincerity.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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