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Empire of Light

Released 2022. Director: Sam Mendes

BRITAIN IN THE EARLY 1980S WAS QUIVERING under waves of social and cultural shifts. The economy was bleak, discontent was rife and violence spilled from football pitches to city streets. Against this backdrop, Empire of Light tells a story bathed in nostalgic affection for film theatres of old, about people who connect despite broken hearts and damaged souls.

The sense of fading majesty is reflected in the Empire Cinema, where much of the story takes place, a remnant of the heyday when cinemas were palaces, the landmark at the town centre. From its first scene, the movie takes you back to a bygone era as Hilary, that’s Olivia Colman’s character, opens its doors, turns on the lights into the lobby with large staircases leading into an auditorium with a wide screen behind plush red curtains. In other parts of this deep, multi-layered building, smaller halls have been shuttered, foyers with large windows overlooking the street now left dusty and visited only by pigeons. The glory days of grand cinemas are already slipping away before the advent of multiplexes.

Hilary, often the first to arrive and last to leave, is the duty manager at Empire. She is a diligent, quiet worker who keeps to herself, a solitary woman approaching middle age whose vulnerability is exploited by her employer. Her small team of staff are convivial though Hilary doesn’t show any interest in socialising. That is, until a new recruit joins the team.

Stephen, played by Michael Ward, is gregarious, keen and attractive. He has a sensitive nature, and his warmth and kindness is probably what draws Hilary to this young man when she sees how he carefully nurses a pigeon with a broken wing.

Blame it on the New Year’s Eve fireworks, but Hilary kissing a junior employee is impetuous and unprofessional. It also marks the moment when this clammed-up, emotionally exiled person takes a chance, entirely spontaneous and unexpected. And it leads to a relationship that dares to grow in the shadow of uncertainty, not least because Hilary has mental health challenges she’s still fighting to overcome.

Olivia Colman continues to amaze with another outstanding performance. She finds the perfect note to convey Hilary’s state of mind and her inner thoughts, whether it’s anxiety, shame, resentment or a brief flash of happiness. Michael Ward is convincing in his first acting role, not only as a black man staunchly tolerating racism but also in his thoughtfulness and maturity in dealing with a hurtful situation. The supporting roles are notable despite their relative brevity, including Colin Firth playing against type as the adulterous boss and Toby Jones as the sympathetic projectionist with unresolved family complications of his own.

Sam Mendes’s reputation as a director is well established, with critical acclaim for works such as 1917, Skyfall, Road to Perdition, and an Oscar for American Beauty. This is the first time he’s directing from his own script (he collaborated with Krysty Wilson-Cairns for 1917), evoking an impression of disappearing grandeur with characters that are disheartened, flawed and empathetic.

One brief scene speaks to the heart of Empire of Light. Norman, the projectionist, explains to Stephen a roll of film is just static images with dark borders which disappear when you run the reel in rapid succession at 24 frames a second. This creates an illusion of motion we see on the screen, or as Norman calls it, the “illusion of life”.

Given the tumultuous times the story is set in, one might ask why Mendes doesn’t examine the larger themes in a deeper way. It’s as if he’s deliberately not seeing the dark bits that frame his story. Regardless, this “illusion of life” that Mendes ends up creating, with its moments of sentimentality and artistry and a limited focus on a luckless romance, is enough to speak of the restorative power in human connections.

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I loved this, it captured the feel and the spirit and sadness of the end of pre-multiplex cinemas, it was a place one could have a whole night starting with pre-movie coffee and post-movie supper. I'm yet again stunned at the performance of Olivia Colman, she just seems to inhabit the soul of her characters and brings each person she plays to life.

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