Written and directed by Sam Mendes (Spectre) and set in Britain in the 1980s, Empire of Light takes place in a movie theater called the Empire. The Empire is failing, half of the movie theater has gone dark, and squawking pigeons occupy the other half. In the small seaside town, people still come to buy snacks and to see movies, but it is no longer the experience of grand cinema. Everyone and everything in the Empire looks tired.
As the film opens, Hilary (Olivia Colman), the Empire’s manager, dutifully lives her lonely life, eats dinner alone and has an unfulfilling affair with her boss, Mr. Ellis, played disturbingly well by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech). Hilary is on an upswing as she has just returned to work after a mental breakdown. A young man named Stephen arrives and is hired at the Empire. He breathes new life into the theater’s dreary corners while striking up a friendship with Hilary that exhilarates her. They are kindred spirits and outsiders in their small town. She is dealing with mental health struggles, and he is black in a racist town.
They fall in love, and their love intermingles with the movie’s themes. Racism, sexism, mental illness, and the daily struggle to accept oneself are prevalent in the film, marking the protagonist’s struggles. All these themes delivered at once could seem muddy in less capable hands, but casting director Nina Gold (The Power of the Dog) has delivered Sam Mendes Olivia Colman (The Favourite) as Hilary and Micheal Ward (Top Boy) as Stephen. Ward is magnetic, sharp, and vibrant in this role. It is a showcase for any young actor, and he makes the most of each emotional twist and turn. He stands out in the role of Stephen. Here, Colman is given a role with substance, and the audience is in for a theatrical treat; she is outstanding as Hilary. Where the script falters, she can wring pathos out of each moment, and her ability to tell a story with just a look makes her a valuable asset to any film. Together, the two are well-matched.
Cinematically, Mendes is paired with his longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins (Revolutionary Road), who captures the movie’s grandeur and intimate moments with a skillful hand. Coupled with music by Trent Reznor, the audience is transported to the 1980s. For an audience who loves the 80s, powerhouse performances, and an emotional challenge, Empire of Light might be the right choice.