Empire of Light Review

Sam Mendez has been on fire lately directing two of the last three James Bond films, Skyfall and Specter, and nearly winning a second-best picture Academy Award for 1917 his WWI epic. Which looked like it was filmed as one continuous shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins. Mendes and Deakins got to work together again for the third time on Empire of Light. Mendes’s ode to the cineplex.

Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is an older woman who works at an old cinema on the southside of England in the early 1980s. She toils away selling candy and popcorn and cleans up auditorium number 1, the only one in service, at the Empire Cinema.  She occasionally goes in and gives her boss the theater manager Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth) folacio in his office for the enjoyment of it, but she’s not entirely enjoying her life until she meets the new employee Stephen (Michael Ward) Who she hits it off with right away. They  very close to one another which causes a few problems at work.

Mendez has made this film because it vaguely has a connection to his life as a child but in actuality, it is his ode to cinema and the great old cineplex around the world and here in the United States. The fact that the viewer gets to see some references to Chariots of Fire the 1991 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Stir Crazy the comedy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, Raging Bull, and Being There just shows how much he cares about movies and how they can bring a visual experience to those watching them home and abroad. I for one agree with how he implemented these classics from my childhood into this film.

Olivia Colman gives another stellar performance as this woman who is literally having a nervous breakdown in front of our eyes. Back then though every little thing like depression, anxiety, and so forth weren’t diagnosed like they are today. So if someone had a breakdown they were just given lithium or taken to a mental hospital and eventually released back into the public. Where they could do it all over again. It’s just how things were back then. It was pretty much swept under the rug. Until they actually had to do something about it. This film deals with her illness but it could have been handled a little better if you ask me. Colman is great though!

As I mentioned earlier Roger Deakins is the cinematographer of this movie. Which makes this the third time he’s worked with Mendes. This time out he does a little more subtle job than he usually does. He usually blows people away with how his films look to the eye but in this film, he uses natural lights and street lamps, and so forth to light the scenes. Some scenes such as a New Year’s Eve scene shooting fireworks in the sky look gorgeous. Other scenes are shot from a distance to show buildings or the ocean near the theater across the street. These touches make what he does look invisible but to the trained eye, they look masterful. He is an absolute legend at his craft. No wonder why Mendes keeps working with him time and again.

I am a huge movie fan and this movie brought a lot of nostalgia back to me while watching it. This time depicted in the film was when I was just becoming the movie aficionado I am today. It was a crucial time in my life and this movie brought back emotion flooding back to me in regards to myself being a struggling movie fan who has a bit of anxiety and depression brought on by my financial struggles and problems at various jobs I’ve had. I literally had a breakdown similar to the one depicted in the film a few years ago. It was not pretty or healthy for me and I paid the consequences. This movie was a bit prophetic to me. The Colman character reminded me of myself.

That being said the film had a few other cast members that stood out to me, namely Michael Ward. He was a revelation to me because I hadn’t heard of him before this movie. He carried his own against some big British talent like Colman, Firth, and Toby Jones as the projectionist which took him under his wing. He had various emotional and sexual scenes in the movie that was hard to watch but he did them perfectly under pressure. His character has various arches which kept his character moving up and down throughout the film. He could be a surprise Best Supporting Actor Academy Award contender come next year.

Another aspect of the movie I loved was the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Similar to Deakins this score was understated and more intimate than the film was. It had a nice tone and light feel to it. It wasn’t boisterous or loud like another score from this pair but it was effective and helped to create the mood of the movie. Which in turn worked very well. These guys are consumer pros at this now. They should be mentioned in the same sentence as some of the great composers of their era. They deserve it. And who knows who they may get another Oscar mom for this simpler but very delightful score.

Empire of Light takes themes of relationships and illness along with other social issues in England at the time and runs with them. Mendes enlists the help of Deakins, once again, and Reznor and Ross to create a little film with some big ideas. He wrapped it all up in an ode to classic cinema of the 80s and an ode to a theater. Whether this was about part of his own life or not doesn’t matter to me. It brought me back to my own childhood and for that I am grateful. Colman gives and other stellar urns and Ward was a relation to me. This was a pleasant surprise all the way around. Should I have ever doubted this team behind the film? No!!!

4 stars 

Dan Skip Allen

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