Empire of Light: Sam Mendes Love Letter to Moviehouse Employees

Sam Mendes’ Uneven Romantic Drama

The filmmaker’s follow-up to ‘1917’ had its world premiere at Telluride and explores the unlikely bond between two employees of a movie theater.

Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)

 

The story he tells in Empire of Light isn’t autobiographical, but it draws upon the music and movies and political climate that informed his coming-of-age — the movies especially. It’s the kinds of popular features that shape memories and are associated with life passages.
A valentine to celluloid defined by self-consciousness, it’s a handsome film set mainly in a movie palace on England’s southeastern coast.
In the role of the troubled, resilient, poetry-loving manager of the theater, Olivia Colman delivers, as expected by now, a reliably strong performance.
Telluride Film Festival

 

As the story opens, 1980 is coming to a close and The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz are featured on the marquee of the Empire.

Colman’s Hilary is recovering from intense mental exhaustion, and being treated with what lithium. She eats Christmas dinner alone, but she hasn’t turned her back on life, attending dances and enjoying bond with her co-workers.

Most of the Empire’s crew is younger, including the punkish Janine (Hannah Onslow) and the sympathetic junior manager, Neil (an endearing Tom Brooke).

Closer to Hilary’s age is projectionist Norman, who’s played by Toby Jones, making the character’s professional pride and love for the projection booth’s believable.

But with the arrival of a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward, of the Netflix series Top Boy), things shift and she feels seen, regaining her joy and strength.

Their connection begins with his curiosity about the theater itself, which takes them to the abandoned upper floors, one of them a former ballroom.

The Empire’s ghostly top floor soon becomes the site of trysts between Hilary and Stephen; Colman shows vulnerability and Wald expresses attraction to the older woman.

The characters prevail in a moment of time defined by Stir Crazy and Chariots of Fire, which, Ellis is proud to announce, will have its “regional gala premiere” at the Empire; in the background, there’s Thatcherism and racist violence.

The racial theme is addressed with a heavy touch, rendering Wald as someone more symbolic than fully fleshed — through no fault of the actor.

As his mother, a single parent and nurse, Tanya Moodie makes an impression in her brief screen time, demonstrating the source of Stephen’s integrity.

The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross taps into a nostalgic vein and the overall visual luster of the film. Tracks by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens are used — particularly the latter’s “Morning Has Broken,” providing melodic counterpoint to unsettling scene in which Hilary is at her most precarious.

Credits
Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Production company: Neal Street
Cast: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tom Brooke, , Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke
Director-screenwriter: Sam Mendes
Producers: Pippa Harris, Sam Mendes
Executive producers: Michael Lerman, Julie Pastor
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Editor: Lee Smith
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Casting director: Nina Gold
Running time: 119 minutes