Movies are for everyone, and the theaters that house them can be a place of light for even the darkest of souls to escape their troubles inside. Walking into a movie house offers you discreet escapism. You aren’t eating a five star dinner in front of tables of people with a waiter ushering in each segment of your consumption along with a steely eye of hidden judgement. The lights are off when the movie plays, a signification of that all is right in your world–and that the outside noise of the real world has been left behind.
It’s this fascinating idea that Sam Mendes dives headfirst into with his latest feature, Empire of Light. Taking place in 1981 in a lovely south coast England city that looks like a living and breathing dream, the Empire theater is the place in town for cinema. For duty manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), it’s her own brand of escape from the troubles of her life, even if she doesn’t bother watching the movies playing in her theater. The arrival of a new employee, the young and ambitious Stephen (Michael Ward), presents a comforting change in Hilary’s mundane life that has a domino effect on the entire theater, including its general manager (Colin Firth) and employees.
For Hilary, Stephen is the kickstart brush fire that she desperately needs. For him, she is a breath of fresh air that keeps his mind off the racist remarks he gets in town from bullies. Being one of the few African American Brits in this setting that looks like Atlantic City’s strip placed down in the English countryside, Stephen finds a kindred spirit in Colman’s aged yet still adventurous soul. The two begin a romance, and experience the ups and downs of meeting somebody who has a wondrous effect on you, even if the timing and futures aren’t perfectly aligned.
Mendes, who wrote the script solo for the first time in his career (he had a writing credit on 1917), gets to explore a world that definitely had an impact on him as a young man. Relationships and minds aren’t molded in a theater, but they definitely are a place where theoretical lightning can strike. Like Mendes’ 2017 film about two young soldiers searching for another soldier during The Great War, this one feels very personal and close to the filmmaker. Unpredictable love blossoming at a movie theater during a trying period in the world gives Empire of Light an easygoing romantic feel, but the allure and beauty of the movie theater is the real heart of this tale.
From Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s banger of a score filling the opening scene with lots of heart to Roger Deakins’ wizard cinematography, your eyes and ears get to eat dessert for the entire two hour movie while the characters build their worlds. The viewer is thrust directly into the daily operations and constant drama that working in a theater can create. Where there’s beauty, there’s heartache. Empire of Light doesn’t shy away from the hardships of Hilary and Stephen, who find their own escape from the castle of escapism in an abandoned theater on the top floor. Instead, it illuminates the joy people felt in a theater with someone (and something) who understood them.
Isn’t that why we descend into the movies? To present our mind to the highest bidding creative, someone who can take away our troubles. It’s that personal touch from Mendes that rides like a hyper current through his best films: the father-son dynamic in Road to Perdition, the grasp of opportunity in old age during American Beauty, or the pathos in chasing down your own family history in “Skyfall.”
It’s the team of pros Mendes is working with in Empire of Light that takes the personality of the film to another level. Outside of the cream of the crop in technical areas like Reznor and Ross’s score or Deakins’ impeccable lens, there’s the top flight cast. Olivia Colman knocks out another gem of a performance, making despair look sexier than it feels like she did in last year’s “The Lost Daughter.” There’s more to Hilary than the first two acts give off, and Mendes plots that out deceptively with the glowing beauty of the theater aesthetic. Like this season’s equally brilliant “Banshees of Inisherin,” big topics like racism and mental illness are handled with grace and care here.
“Empire of Light” does have a lot on its mind and the second half of the film does become a little of a wayward son as the subplots bind together and Hilary and Stephen’s relationship faces self-built hardships. However, the writer/director has the ingenuity to save the biggest emotional wallop for late in the film. With no disrespect to Nicole Kidman’s unintentionally humorous AMC ads, it’s Colman bawling in a movie theater as the empire of light surrounds her at last that packs the most punch. When they talk about sweeping emotions being felt in a theater, this is what they were referencing.
At the end of the day, outside of the big love and conflict at the heart of the story, “Empire of Light” is about movie theaters shaping our lives in unconventional ways. They’re a castle of forbidden desires interchanging each night, where enemies can sit near each other and unkempt souls can get away from everyone and everything telling them they’re not alright. That’s what Mendes is trying to get across here. Black, white, damaged, undamaged, young or old, pretty or ugly… the movies and the castles that house them are like our best friends; they like us no matter what.