EMPIRE OF LIGHT – Review by Diane Carson

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Empire of Light celebrates cinema and confronts social ills.

A dynamic, but mentally struggling woman steers the personal and political world of 1980s Britain in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. As Hilary Small, the always remarkable Olivia Colman anchors the Empire cinema, selling tickets and concessions. Mendes’ love letter to films and old-fashioned, gorgeous cinemas engages with Britain’s racism when the Empire hires Stephen, a young Black man.

Additionally complicated by Hilary’s mental challenges and her boss’ sexual abuse, the story incorporates a spectrum of issues presented in an engaging package that makes its points without sentimental or sensationalized depictions, an impressive delicate balance. In other words, ethical stands receive strong, intelligent endorsement. Adding significant minor details, one subplot revolves around the Empire granted the premiere of the 1981 Chariots of Fire, that film an implicit condemnation of anti-Semitism and Nazi power.

On a lighter note, adding to the multifaceted narrative, the projectionist Norman gives an educational explanation of film projection as it existed before digital took over. Empire of Light is, in part, a love letter to 1980s cinema, and all I loved of the often awe-inspiring experience in a luxurious movie palace. What writer/director Mendes does is go behind the scenes to bring to life the culture of those who whisked viewers into another world while battling their own demons and society’s racism, sexual predation, and mental health struggles. Behind the glimmer and glamor of that magical theater and blinding projector’s light existed a real, troubled world from which imagination offered escape, the establishment of a surrogate, supportive family.

Mendes tunes into and beautifully captures this reality, with lighting and compositions changing from the lovely Empire, colorful and bright, to Hilary’s dark, claustrophobic apartment. Olivia Colman’s brilliant performance threads its way through these moods with convincing nuances and shifts verbally and nonverbally. As Stephen, Micheal Ward compellingly expresses his wariness, receptivity to kindness, and strength in a racist environment. In a strong supporting role, the always dependable Toby Jones as the projectionist Norman makes his job feel special and enchanting. Another dependable actor, Colin Firth presents theater owner Donald Ellis as the sleazy, opportunistic boss he is. Empire of Light is the actors’ film delivering Mendes’ admirable, substantive insights.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.