“Cinema is magic in the service of dreams.” – Djibril Diop Mambéty
Empire of Light is the rare film that entered my consciousness with little to no prior knowledge of it. I never saw a trailer, never read a cast list or really even who directed it. I was invited to watch it and the thought of seeing something I knew nothing about in the Youtube era was intriguing. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that not only is it directed by the masterful, Sam Mendes but the director of photography is none other than the peerless, Roger Deakins. The score, which is elegant and entrancing, was created by the award winning duo, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, responsible for such sensational film scores as The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher) and Soul among many others. And none of this even covers the phenomenal cast leading what turned out to be a simple but touching story of human interaction set in a brilliant but dilapidated cinema.
Olivia Colman leads a stellar cast as Hilary, a manager of the Empire Cinema. A place once drenched in distinction and architectural grandeur, now partially in ruin as an ever-changing world renders much of it forgotten and without purpose. It was the place to be, with massive banquet halls for parties and celebration of the cinematic experience. Now only two screens remain in use as the crowds mainly consist of repeat customers looking for an escape in the middle of the day. Much like the cinema itself, Hilary is broken but hides those shattered pieces of herself behind lock and key, dusty and waiting for life to return to replace the mundanity that has become her day to day.
She sees the potential of happiness in the touch of the cinema’s newest employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward). Much younger than Hilary, Stephen immediately endears himself to the other Empire employees. He is charismatic and spirited, something desperately missing from Hilary’s life. What others aren’t exactly aware of is Hilary’s mental health being as delicate and unstable as a whisper. Her complete dependence on Stephen is destined to become problematic at best. Empire of Light is a beacon of hope in the lives of strangers, co-workers, and lovers hoping for human connection. It’s about the realization that entire lives of burdensome repulsion can exist without anyone being aware of it. It is about empathy where it once was never found but is so desperately needed. All of this at the foundation of cinematic escapism.
Sam Mendes is both writer and director forgoing the complexities of his previous efforts, 1917 and the Bond films, to create something simpler and quieter but every bit as humanly intricate. Unfortunately the weaknesses of Empire of Light are much more prevalent than his most recent works. While showcasing so much brilliance visually and in its characters, the overall film seems to be without a singular theme. It frequently attempts to focus on the relationship of its two main leads only to lose sight of that as it tries to bring other complicated elements into an already full and rich storyline. By its end it never quite figures out what it wanted to say and what it wanted us to take away from it.
Where it does shine are in the moments when it showcases the magic of cinema and its ability to transcend the harshness of reality where life is relentlessly unfair and people are perpetually cruel. When Colman’s character, Hilary, finally indulges in the enchantment of motion pictures, her burdens seem to lighten and her purpose comes more into focus. While still every bit as damaged as she once was, she realizes happiness beyond her infatuation with a fleeting love affair.
If much of the themes include the brilliance of film, who better to capture that visual splendor than Roger Deakins? His vision is in every shot, from a simple over the shoulder shot amid a deep, personal conversation to something more harrowing like nazi punks invading the sanctity of the movie theater experience. His choices in color grading range from the warm glow of a low wattage light bulb, a comforting but isolated orange to the greatest contrast of a black sky filled with the brilliance of massive fireworks filling the night. The brightness of the fireworks lights the faces of its onlookers as they stare back in amazement. He captures these things with such command that it’s impossible to look away.
All of its shortcomings are obvious but by the end I was lost in its complicated characters, gorgeous cinematography, wonderful performances and overall love letter to cinema. Its first act is slow, but given the chance I think it can impress even the most cynical. It just needs that opportunity. It never claims perfection but rather revels in what it does do, to an almost perfect level. I don’t know how often I might revisit this film but I know when I do, I believe I will find its best moments still leave me in deep thought and introspection.
Rated R For: sexual content, language and brief violence
Runtime: 119 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Drama, Romance
Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth
Directed By: Sam Mendes
Out of 10 Nerdskulls
Story: 6.5/ Acting: 10/ Directing: 8.5/ Visuals: 9
OVERALL: 8 Nerdskulls
Buy to Own: Yes.
Check out the trailer below:
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