Over the last few years, Sam Mendes has directed nothing but gigantic blockbusters; 007 films Skyfall and Spectre, followed by the single-shot war film 1917. As good-to-great as they are, it did start to feel that the Mendes of his small-scale early work was vanishing. Fortunately, that version of Mendes comes back with the sublime Empire of Light, a quiet, soulful, and beautifully shot story about an unexpected romance, a passion for movies, and the changing of the times in the early ’80s.
Smartly, Mendes cast the impeccable Olivia Colman to lead this dramatic resurgence. She plays Hilary, a quiet, sheepish woman working at a movie theater on the coast of England in 1981. Older than the rest of he co-workers, Hilary largely keeps to herself, save for the office flings she has with her boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), that she seems to appreciate more than him. The tiny bit of physical contact and affection he shows for her is clearly something she’s desperate for. Something tragic from her past is nagging at her. Her doctor has prescribed her lithium, suggesting schizophrenia or some other mental illness.
So right away, this character isn’t what we might’ve expected. Hilary isn’t just another lonely woman in need of a vacation and a boyfriend. Something deeper is going on. Perhaps the new guy at work, Stephen (Micheal Ward) can provide what she needs. The young Black man is a burst of new energy in that creeky old theater, bringing with him new music, new ideas, and Hilary is swept up in all of it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Stephen is more than just handsome and energetic. Through his caring for an injured pigeon in the theater’s abandoned attic, we see that Stephen is also kind of heart. On New Year’s Eve, he leaves a busy party to spend part of the evening with a lonely Hilary on the theater roof, and a romance is born.
While set in a movie theater, the cinema proves to be no escape for Hilary until Stephen comes along and introduces her to it. The timing couldn’t be better, either, as in 1981 the UK was getting some amazing stuff such as The Blues Brothers, All that Jazz, and more that pass through the theater at different points. Without going overboard into Hallmark Card or Nicole Kidman AMC commercial levels of sappiness, Mendes captures the powerful effect that movies can have to open one’s eyes to the world.
Reunited with cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Attitcus Ross and Trent Reznor, Mendes’ latest looks and sounds incredible. Perhaps it’s even too good. Hilary’s drab reality, which continues to intercede even during happy times, is a somber mood the film is tough to shake. Colman and Ward pull us out of it, though, with their surprisingly tight chemistry. When the two of them are together, especially under the night sky in the fireworks glow, it’s truly something magical. These two people are of vastly different worlds but they’re both in need of the life experience only the other can give.
Eventually, the real world does make its presence felt. Stephen is personally impacted by the resurgence of Nazi skinheads in the UK. The racism storyline feels like it has intruded into the lovely story we had been following, but that’s exactly the point. Mendes could’ve done to give it more time, but fortunately Ward is so good at portraying Stephen’s anger and disilluisionment that he draws every bit of our attention. Along with Colman and a small but surprisingly heartbreaking role for Toby Jones as the theater projectionist, Empire of Light has some of the best performances that Mendes has ever put to screen. Consider Mendes’ career and the ground that covers, and you’ll see why this is one to be sought out when it arrives in theaters.
Empire of Light opens in theaters on December 9th.