The gorgeous old, Art Deco movie house in Sam Mendes’ heartfelt drama Empire of Light (★★★☆☆) looks like the sort of cinema palace any number of moviegoers might relish escaping to for a few hours or a day. You can practically smell the popcorn and sense the decades of history haunting the cinema’s poster-lined halls.
As conceived by production designer Mark Tildesley, and shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins — an Oscar winner for his work on Mendes’ stunning WWI epic 1917 — the Empire Cinema looks glorious, even as half of its old auditoriums sit unused and dilapidated. Beautiful in its decay, the theater shares this wistfully romantic quality with the seaside English town where it resides.
The Empire seems like a place built for dreaming, but as we step inside in late 1980, the dream is languishing, much like the lonely and longing people who work there. Foremost among them is the theater’s duty manager, “who also works drinks and snacks,” Hilary Small, a habitual mood-killer portrayed with aching sensitivity by Olivia Colman.
Hilary’s moods, as it turns out, are still adjusting to the lithium her doctor just started her on. Battling mental illness, she’s also adjusting to being back at work after a brief respite that she’s reluctant to discuss with handsome, much younger new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward).
Mendes and editor Lee Smith usher us smoothly into Hilary and Stephen’s blossoming friendship and quite disparate lives. In one harrowing scene, she watches horrified, but doesn’t intervene, as Stephen, who’s Black, is assaulted by a gang of racist skinheads. Still, before long, an impulsive kiss kicks off an unlikely sexual dalliance between the pair, though not quite a full-fledged romance.
For a while, the movie risks exploiting Stephen as a mere device for rekindling Hilary’s dwindling flames of purpose and self-respect. She feels stuck in her job, in this town, and in a destructive cycle of harassment with her boss, Donald, embodied in all his slimy inappropriateness by a terrific Colin Firth.
But the dynamic portrayal of college hopeful Stephen’s view of the relationship, along with Ward’s alert performance, cast him in a more proactive light. He’s a bit of a manic pixie dreamboat, but he convincingly helps open Hilary up to healing and wellness.
The film is still realistic about the limitations of her mental condition. Colman, who won an Oscar playing over-the-top madness as Queen Anne in The Favourite, finds a different key of instability here, with Hilary swinging from intense lows to ranting, manic highs. At times, she’s like a film reel spinning off the spool onto the floor.
Toby Jones, as the theater’s persnickety projectionist, Norman, shoulders a few weighty monologues spelling out the film’s metaphorical musings about movie magic and “finding where light in darkness lies.” But not even Norman has been able to persuade downhearted Hilary to shine some light in her life by seeing a movie. To Stephen’s surprise, Hilary never actually sees the films at the Empire, a sure sign that her soul needs saving.
So he preaches the gospel of sneaking into a showing of 9 to 5 as one way for Hilary to see the light, or at least laugh away her troubles for a moment. The array of period-perfect releases playing at the Empire, from Stir Crazy to Raging Bull to Chariots of Fire, add to the film’s charm and specific sense of good taste, like a well-curated repertory program at your favorite local cinema.
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ tender score, augmented by the eclectic ’70s-’80s soundtrack, likewise captures Empire of Light‘s tone of warmth and compassion, whether Hilary’s on a roller disco date among friends, or a joyous spin on a carnival ride.
In one particularly sharp juxtaposition, Cat Stevens’ plaintive “Morning Has Broken” underscores an intense scene of Hilary raving darkly while authorities beat down her door. It’s a heartrending portrayal of a wayward dreamer at war with herself.
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