Going to the movies has become a very normal activity for many people, and for those who have yet to venture back to theaters given the current unstable state of the world, there is more than enough content to be accessed instantly at home. But it didn’t used to be that way, back when seeing a film meant getting dressed up and going to see whatever was playing at a movie house. Comprehending that feeling may be difficult for younger audiences for whom a large, decadent theater is an unfamiliar experience, but Sam Mendes’ love letter to cinema, Empire of Light, manages to capture and celebrate that sentiment.
Hilary (Olivia Colman) works at the Empire cinema in 1980s Britain, greeting guests as they come in, selling them concessions, and ripping their tickets as she directs them upstairs to the large auditorium. Her long-running affair with the manager (Colin Firth) hasn’t helped her mental health, which previously found her confined to a psychiatric hospital, but her spirit changes when she meets the newest employee, a young Black man named Stephen (Micheal Ward). Their unexpected romance is founded on a mutual interest in each other and their shared appreciation of the upper levels of the cinema which have long been closed to the public but serve as a meeting place for them to be their most authentic selves.
Empire of Light is the latest film from Mendes, who has made masterful productions from American Beauty to 1917. His newest work is different from anything he has made before, evolving as it goes from a story of a relationship between two employees to an in-depth look at their greatest struggles, which for Hilary is bouts of mania and for Stephen involves regular confrontations with racists and proud white nationalists whose worldviews are all-too-permitted in the era. Those problems feel somehow smaller when they are together at the cinema, a place where others come to get away and which holds special meaning for the two of them. Yet Hilary repeatedly acknowledges that she doesn’t actually watch the movies, something Stephen encourages her to do so she can truly understand the magic.
This film marks another collaboration between Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has a way of looking at the world that convincingly brings audiences to each moment in time and space. The way that the projectionist (Toby Jones) sets everything up to play each movie is shown with care and reverence, and the scenes that take place outside of the theater have a grandeur to them that resonates. As much attention is paid to costumes and the surrounding area as to the theater itself, and this film feels like it truly exists decades ago.
Colman has repeatedly proven herself exceptionally capable of connecting to character, and she does that once again with Hilary. She highlights Hilary’s respect for the job that she does, a commitment that stands in contrast to how she is often treated. Stephen changes that, seeing her for who she is, and Ward turns into an endearing and multifaceted performance that shows the intersection of immaturity and decency, and how Stephen’s behavior is often shaped – and spurred – by the world around him.
Empire of Light doesn’t feel like a definitive chronicle of a dying age of cinema but instead an excerpted chapter of an era that hasn’t been entirely forgotten. A filmmaker like Mendes remembers this time and the feeling of going to a theater like this, and this film is a vivid example of how cinema manages to keep otherwise distant and forgotten times alive. Its title references multiple meanings, likening the cinema of the same name to a grand empire and the light within it to the transformational power of projecting moving images onto a screen.
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Following its Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Empire of Light will be released in theaters on December 9th.