Empire of Light, a new film written and directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) is an intimate tale about a likable, exceedingly resilient woman named Hilary Small who must repeatedly reconstruct her self-confidence around exacerbations of bipolar illness.
This is Mendes’s first solo-scripted film, a story informed by his experience growing up in a single-parent home with his schizophrenic mother.
Empire of Light is genius moviemaking amplified by a top-tier cast and crew. The final product is a thoughtful, delicate, heart-wrenching, ultimately hopeful cinematic experience about living life on life’s terms.
Mendes is known for the thought-provoking nature of his films, and this one might be his best to date.
Olivia Colman leads the cast as Hilary, the duty manager of The Empire Theater, a run-down cinema house located along the southern coast of England in the late 1980s. When a handsome, much younger ticket taker named Stephen is hired, played by Michael Ward (Top Boy, 2011), Hilary’s interest is piqued, and her impulse control limited, seemingly due to her recent decision to stop taking lithium, her prescribed mood stabilizer.
What follows is a surprisingly believable May-September liaison that enables both people to navigate enormous hardships. For Hilary this means confronting sexual exploitation by her creepy, self-absorbed boss, Donald, played to perfection by Oscar winner Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, 2010). For Stephen this means staying true to himself and his goals, despite persistent harassment and violent racial assaults by the small-town gang of Thatcher-era skinheads.
Mendes’ portrayal of Hilary, a treatment-resistant manic-depressive, is spot on. Early in the film, we see her complaining to her psychiatrist that the lithium he has prescribed to help manage her mood swings leaves her feeling “numb.” Soon thereafter, Hilary decides she prefers feeling manic to feeling numb and stops taking the drug. We don’t blame her. She does seem happier without the chemical, until she relapses to full mania, at which point we get an insider’s glimpse into the age-old challenge of treating bipolar illness. Who wouldn’t prefer the elation of hypomania to pharmaceutical-induced doldrums?
As always, Colman delivers a heartfelt, soulful performance, reminding us of her deep mastery over her craft. Her performance is bright, robust, and urgent. There is an organic nature to her sadness and joy that viewers identify with, even in her darkest, most maniacal moments. Colman’s performance in this leading role was nominated for a Golden Globe. It will be no surprise if this recognition carries over to an Oscar nomination as well. If this happens it will be her fourth Academy nomination in the last five years for lead or supporting roles, including her win as lead for The Favourite (2018) and nominations for The Father (2020) and The Lost Daughter (2021).
Much of the film takes place inside the once-majestic, 1950s Empire Theater. Production designer Mark Tyldesley (The Banshees of Inisherin, 2021) outdoes himself, and that is saying a lot! Together he and Mendes have elevated the Empire movie house to the realm of sanctuary. As the saying goes, the truth is in the details.
Empire of Light is a nostalgic love story to the movies, right down to their recreation of the 1950s concession items. Watch for the brilliantly recurring rectangular prop features that subliminally mimic the shape of the movie screen.
This is Mendes’ fifth collaboration with two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (1917, 2019). Many believe he is the greatest living cinematographer. Deakins himself is the cameraman behind the hand-held for this film. Soft lighting and straightforward film angles enhance the character-centered texture of this film. Time and again, actors move in and out of single camera frames, like how movies were filmed before digital photography. Deakins received a Golden Globe nomination for cinematography for Empire of Light, and most agree he is in line for an Oscar nomination as well.
Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, also recent Oscar winners (Soul, 2021) team up to bring us a score that is heavy with piano, starting with a soft, moving composition in the first scene, setting the tone for our journey with Hilary through her maze of loss, challenges, and triumphs.
Empire of Light is a wondrous movie about friendship and chosen families. Beyond doubt, though, the hero of the film is cinema itself, that moment when you sit down in a dark, hushed theater to explore another way to be, and emerge changed.
Empire of Light is an art house film, released in just a few theaters. After a short run at the Evanston AMC, it is currently playing only at the Glen Art Theater in Glen Ellyn. Fear not, though, it is a Searchlight Picture so the film will soon stream on Hulu and/or HBO Max. Watch for it. It’s worth the wait.