Sam Mendes’s new film Empire of Light (2022) has an inherent love of cinema at its very core. The film opens with Hillary Small (Olivia Coleman), the duty manager of the Empire, going through her morning procedures to get the theater ready for the public. One of the last images we see in this sequence is her putting a pair of shoes in front of a space heater that are later shown on the feet of the manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). It’s this touch that sets us up for the slightly sad state Hillary is in until a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), lifts her spirits – while simultaneously complicating things.
The love story in the film is compelling, and the performances from Coleman and Ward are pretty incredible. Coleman owns the screen at this point in her career, and this character gives her plenty to showcase her talent with. There are moments when she is basically quiet and reserved, and others where her anger boils over – but both types are performed with surgical precision. Ward is given a challenging task, being the much younger man – but I felt his character genuinely felt love for Hillary, in large part because of his performance. However, it’s not this story that really grabbed me, but rather the one that is about a love of cinema.
Toby Jones plays Norman – the projectionist at the Empire – which really spoke to my own love of cinema. Norman is initially depicted as a bit of a curmudgeon who doesn’t want others in his projection room. Yet, Stephen earns his way into Norman’s kindness, and begins learning the process of projection. It’s in these conversations that the film’s setting really clicks. There is simply something magical about movies. In the time that this movie is set, the theater shows a variety of films that include – but are not limited to, as this is based solely on my memory – the Blues Brothers, All that Jazz, 9-to-5, Raging Bull, Stir Crazy, Chariots of Fire, and Being There. Pondering why Mendes chose these films in an attempt to unravel his film’s themes has been my favorite post-viewing activity of this film.
This film may suffer from too many ideas and attempt to tackle too many topics at once. The love of movies is a backdrop more so than the focus, stepping aside to make way for mental health, problematic work environments, racism due to Thatcher’s England – and, of course, love. Not all of these topics mesh clearly through the course of the film, but a viewer with prior knowledge of these topics can definitely distill more from them. Regardless, there is a charm emanating from this film, as well as an incredible amount of craftsmanship (just check out the credits of the crew who worked on this film) that makes it entirely watchable.
Once I saw the synopsis of the film, I expected it to work for me. I love cinema, and I think movies are the greatest form of art man has ever created. I’m endlessly awed, and despite devoting so many hours of my life to the study of them, I continue to want more and to learn new things. While this film is only partially interested in discussing that, the other pieces were still compelling enough for me. Empire of Light earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.