Frail woman: Olivia Colman in ‘Empire of Light’.
EMPIRE OF LIGHT ***1/2 (115 minutes) MA
A beautiful, over-sized seaside cinema that is well past its prime is the radiant setting for Empire of Light, a nostalgic opus from writer/director Sam Mendes (American Beauty; 1917; Skyfall) that blends a valentine to old-world movie palaces with the rather sad tale of a deeply troubled middle-aged woman.
It’s the early 1980s in the UK and Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is duty manager at the Empire cinema, which she runs with a firm hand, as new arrival Stephen (Micheal Ward) quickly discovers when she slays him for ridiculing an elderly patron.
Still, the venue has a nice family feel among the staff and the rift quickly heals. Without much prompting or, frankly, much reason, an attraction forms between the surly white woman and the handsome young black man, who becomes aware how that the cinema staff have all been helping Hilary cope with her serious mental health issues.
There’s also concern from colleague Neil (Tom Brooke) about the perilous nature of their “secret” relationship because of the racial tensions running through the UK.
Further complicating her situation is that the cinema’s very married owner Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) is in the habit of calling her into his office for impromptu meetings, which chiefly involve him exploiting her skills as a fellatrix.
As a paean to fading cinema palaces Mendes conjures an appreciable handful of scenes and moments that are beautiful and touching.
In Stephen we see a growing love for the allure of cinema as he becomes enchanted by how projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) lovingly demonstrates the mechanics behind the magic.
The faded glory of the venue is luminously rendered as Hilary shows Stephen the abandoned upstairs part of the complex, with a dust-covered foyer and two inactive screens leading to a giant dining area, complete with grand piano and uninterrupted views of the beach. Used by local birdlife, why the space isn’t used to make a killing as a tourist café is never explained. (Nor is why an unused grand piano would be is left with its lid open.)
The film’s cinematography by British veteran Roger Deakins (Fargo; Shawshank Redemption; 1917) often has a dreamlike quality, though the feels toggles to nightmare as local skinheads exert their racism on the town and on the cinema. Not surprisingly, the cinematography has been nominated for an Oscar.
Far more surprisingly, Colman’s extraordinary performance as a mentally fragile woman hasn’t. It’s quite an anomaly, especially given her Best Actress Oscar for The Favourite, and nominations for The Father and The Lost Daughter. What she does in Empire of Light is easily in that league.
Her subtle portrait of Hilary’s frailty is piercing, hitting its peak when, during the cinema’s proud premiere of Chariots of Fire, she suffers a complete mental collapse in public.
That’d be bad enough, yet Hilary appears totally oblivious to how humiliating her behaviour is. It’s an amazing moment, a highlight in a terrific performance that makes you sigh “now that’s acting”.
There is a small degree of awkwardness with how Mendes mixes in the issues of race and mental illness, resulting some dialogue sounding like tghey’ve been cut and pasted from research notes.
Still, that’s a quibble in a fine film tha reminds us how any walk down memory lane is always qualified by the realities rose-coloured reminiscences would prefer to ignore.
As wistful as it often is, Empire of Light, thankfully, refuses to do so and is all the better for it, reminding us how true nostalgia always involves a mixture of pleasantness and regret.