Like other filmmakers of recent years like Alfonso Cuaron with RomePaolo Sorrentino with God’s hand, and Kenneth Branagh with Belfast, Sam Mendes is in the mood to explore his own memories of his formative years, but unlike those movies, he doesn’t put his youth at the center of the story, instead he does. Is put his own experience of seeing movies in theaters up front. But don’t get me wrong, it’s decidedly not the sentimental lover Paradise Cinema, but rather a film that is, at least in part, a valentine to go to the cinema in a world of growing tension and racial strife, a place to get away from the grim realities of life, if only for a few hours. .
Mendes says he’s grappled with the idea of doing a very personal project like this for some time, even at one point considering an autobiographical film, but the pandemic has given him time to reflect and c That’s where he got the idea for the setting, and then where he could go from there. It is remarkable how universally relevant it is today even though it was established 40 years ago. Mendes, a highly acclaimed film and theater director, also has a deep love for the palaces in which we watch his work, whether live on stage or in cinema, and this film is on that level a loving ode to towards them, but in his his own way. It was also crafted at a time of lockdown when Mendes wondered if we’d ever even see the inside of a theater again, a perilous time we’re still trying to get out of. Movies as good as this will help get the job done.
Set primarily in late 1979 and early 80s, empire of light refers to a large seaside cinema palace called the Empire in England, once a much larger entertainment and dining center, but now reduced to two screens showing films of the era such as All that jazz, The Elephant Man, 9 to 5 and more. But don’t get me wrong, it’s decidedly not the sentimental lover Paradise Cinema, but rather a film that indeed shows us a film set in a time of growing tension and racial strife, a place to get away from the grim realities of life, if only for a few hours. The world outside those doors is scary, but the world inside is magical, or so Mendes remembers it.
Although there is a hilarious encounter with a patron, the focus of this original screenplay by Mendes (his first solo writing credit) is on the employees, including longtime assistant manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), and a new employee named Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young black man who takes tickets. It’s clear from the start that Hilary is an unhappy woman in her job, but clearly, with a past that we’ll eventually find out about as she suffers from mental issues and manic episodes. She goes about her daily duties almost by heart after coming out of a recent downturn in her life, but is also used by the Empire’s manager, Mr. Ellis, a married man who calls her for sexual favors. in his office. She’s at a dead end but succumbs to the dark side of the job to just keep going.
Showing Stephen the ropes with little enthusiasm for the task – you can tell she’s done this training a number of times – he convinces her to let him see the now closed and dilapidated part of the theater and restaurant that’s outside. upstairs and locked up. In there, pigeons come in and out through the broken windows but one of them is injured. Stephen saves him and it seems to lighten Hilary’s mood. It becomes the start of a beautiful friendship, even leading to an impulsive kiss from Hilary as they watch the fireworks from the roof of the Empire on New Years Eve. they keep it a secret from their co-workers, but a day trip to the beach begins to reveal deeper issues for Hilary. The drama escalates and Mendes mixes real-world issues into the story, including mental health, racism, political issues and many conflicts of the time, including the Brixton and Toxteth riots, the effects by Margaret Thatcher, skinhead violence (a scene where they break down the Gates of Empire is chillingly reminiscent of January 6), and other intrusions into the world where a movie theater seems caught in the crossfire.
Mendes clearly shows his love for movies, and the influence they’ve obviously had on him, but using the setting of a sacred place we want to get away to, he’s not afraid to go places uncomfortable, including the sudden personality change of the fragile Hilary, and racial attacks on Stephen that have the effect of drastically altering the mood. Mendes is such a talented director that he manages to navigate these personal tragedies without letting his film spiral out of control. It all comes together in such a satisfying, yet entirely plausible way, that empire of light keeps us in its grip for the entire two hours. Much of the credit goes to Colman’s stunning performance (would you expect any less?), an actor who can instantly express more with a facial expression than 120 pages of dialogue ever could. She’s a character who needs someone with Colman’s skills and range, and there are very few people who could pull off her emotional twists like she can. It’s a huge challenge met head-on with the strength of a big star. Mendes wrote it with her in mind. The relative newcomer Ward (Small Ax Lovers Rock) delivers all aspects of a breakout role that he embraces with immense flair. We believe them both, hurt for them and rooted for them. There’s no wrong note from either actor in a relationship where they’re both giving each other a gift of light.
Of the supporting cast, Firth’s creepy, ever-reliable and watchable boss isn’t loaded with dimension, but he provides exactly what’s needed to make us hate the guy. Toby Jones, on the other hand, is very fond of us as Norman, the projectionist who watches his work in the booth like an artist. These scenes, especially one towards the end where Hilary begs him to show her a movie, any film, are priceless and a true love letter to the past days of screening film. Jones also has a key line in the film that works on more than one level as it shows Stephen how to put on a spotlight, “without the light you have nothing”. Other stars include Tom Brooke and Hannah Onslow as quirky yet charming co-workers, and Tanya Moodie as Stephen’s protective yet loving mother.
Working again with his Oscar winner 1917 cinematographer Roger Deakins, the visuals and style of the film are magnificent, Empire shot with the tender loving care of a master. Big shout out to production designer Mark Tildesley who took a long-abandoned theater in Margate on the south shore of Kent and brought it back to its half-glory days filled with posters and popcorn. The score is splendid and comes from two-time Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as perfectly chosen songs from the soundtrack of The Specials and The Beat, among others.
The producers are Mendes and Pippa Scott. Searchlight will be released in theaters – thank the Lord – in December. movie and movie theater lovers should not miss it.