Writer/director Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is a beautiful and emotional achievement, celebrating the beauty of cinema while allowing its star, Olivia Colman to deliver a powerful, layered and nuanced performance as Hillary. She’s a woman of a certain age who suffers from a mental illness, which she has to contend with in her day-to-day life serving as the duty manager of the Empire, a movie theatre on England’s South Coast.
Juxtaposing the reality, and the hidden sections of the gorgeously appointed theatre with her life, her joys and pains, Colman shines and brings Hillary to life. She is recognizable in her pain, her illness, and her love.
It’s late 1980, Hillary has had issues in the past. She’s seeing a doctor, is on (and off again) lithium to help even her out, and has some less than enjoyable extra duties around the theatre thanks to her manager (Colin Firth)
Her life gets a bit of a shakeup with a new hire at the theatre, a young man named Stephen (Michael Ward). The two form a connection, and a poignant May-September relationship begins. Stephen tries to navigate his choices and relationships in a world that doesn’t always seem to want him, as evidenced by the rising of England’s National Front and skinhead movements, to say nothing of the politicians in office at the time.
The theatre serves as an escape in a whole new way for Hilly. She’s never snuck in to see any of the films that screen there, under the perfectionist eye of the projectionist (Toby Jones), but Stephen opens up things anew for her, and old forgotten areas of the theatre become her escape.
But her own reality is fragile.
Mendes wraps us up in the grace and illusion of movement, reminding us constantly of the nature of movies and film. We get caught up in it, and in seeing Colman’s portrayal on the screen is to see an honest projection of mental illness and the need for support, friends, and love.
This one had me on the emotional cusp throughout, and it may be one of my most beloved cinematic experiences of the year.
Empire of Light screens again on Tuesday the 13th at the Princess of Wales Screening Room, and Saturday the 17th at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.