Empire of Light

Empire of Light, 2022, 4 ¼ stars

Empirical quality

Mendes shines Light  through darkness

Olivia Colman stars in Empire of Light. (image copyright Searchlight Pictures / Neal Street Productions)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, November 6, 2022

Director Sam Mendes’ last film, 1917, is a tale of the most awesome conflict the world had ever known. The Great War is blamed for the death of nine million soldiers and five million civilians, with still more carnage coming from the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic. For his next film, Mendes has chosen even deadlier topics: emotional isolation, racism and mental illness.

Meet Hilary (Olivia Colman), a forlorn and unfulfilled employee at an imposing but past-its-prime cinema (the Empire) in the southeastern English seaside resort town of Margate in the early 1980s. Though she doesn’t see the same combat as characters in 1917, Hilary fights her own battles. Getting up each morning and going to work is her Verdun. Enduring sexual harassment from her boss (Colin Firth) is her Somme. And groping for meaning in her melancholy is her Gallipoli.

Yet as World War I had its Armistice, Hilary too is occasionally able, thanks to friendship from the cinema’s projectionist (Toby Jones) and an unexpected and briefly romantic bond with a co-worker (Michael Ward), to “find where light in darkness lies.” The latter relationship is understandably fraught – because of Hilary’s fragility, their age difference and his race. He is a Black man, one of the few living in an almost all White area of Thatcher’s Britain, a region and era known for racial strife.

Their personal tortures couldn’t be more different: hers an interior, often invisible torment, and his an almost unbearable public spectacle. But they endure, with a little kindness from each other and a helping hand from film itself, which, as the Empire’s projectionist reminds them, in the movie’s central metaphor, offers a way to become blind to the darkness.

Empire of Light is more of an acquired taste than 1917, American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Its pacing is more methodical and its comparatively simple script (the first Mendes has written by himself) doesn’t have as much to offer on first flicker. But the movie, thanks in great part to another astonishing performance by Colman, slowly casts a spell all its own, eventually conjuring another grand, if slightly odder, piece of fine art from a master craftsman.

The film’s critical rejection is crushing and makes one wonder how Hilary would respond. Not one to eschew angry outbursts, at least when off her lithium, she might coax critics to check their snark and cynicism at the theater door. Yes, some of the supporting characters, particularly Firth’s, are a tad underdeveloped and the screenplay somewhat uneven, but these nitpicks don’t detract much from the overall mood, which is enhanced by wonderful music and, ultimately, hopefulness. Hilary might also remind us that simplicity and sentimentality can actually be noble, especially when staged by the mind of Mendes and refracted through the lens of Roger Deakins.

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For more information on this movie, visit IMDB and Wikipedia