By Ed Symkus
Sam Mendes writes and directs a poignant ode to the escape we find in going to the movies.
Empire of Light is playing at AMC Boston Common, The Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Showcase Cinema in Dedham.
For the past couple of decades, British director Sam Mendes has been busy tackling all sorts of movie genres. A partial list includes the rugged WWI war film 1917, the romantic comedy Away We Go, the vicious gangster movie Road to Perdition, a duo of Bond entries — Skyfall and Spectre — and his Oscar-winning study of suburban obsession, American Beauty.
Maybe he’s never wanted to be pigeonholed. Perhaps he’s always challenging himself to try something different. Whatever his reasoning, he’s again chosen to explore new territory with Empire of Light. It is a story of loneliness and longing, of long-shot hopes that dreams will come true, of well-meaning people doling out helpful advice and of others who are going through rough times and could use all the help they can get.
It’s a period piece, taking place in 1981, in and around a provincial seaside town in England. The setting is the once-thriving Empire Cinema, which used to have four screens, Now it is down to two, but the theater still maintains an aura of elegance.
Hilary (Olivia Colman) works as the Empire’s duty manager, seemingly doing everything, from turning on the lights at the start of her shift to cleaning up the place at day’s end. Not a very happy person, she lives the life of a loner, walking back and forth from her home to work every day, checking in with her doctor from time to time for a refill of lithium, admitting to him, “I do feel a bit alone.”
Still, Hilary is quick with a laugh when hanging out with the staff during downtime at the cinema, and her self esteem appears to be in pretty good shape every time the stern manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth) asks her to step into his office for a quick shag. And, yes, he’s married.
But the script – the first solo effort from Mendes, who co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns – mercifully doesn’t focus on that cliché-ish part of the story. This is much more a look at the guarded existence of Hilary, replete with hints of what makes her tick, and how she deals with the folks around her, including those she knows as well as someone she meets.
That would be Stephen (Micheal Ward), the younger Black man who, unsure of what he wants to do with his life, is the newest member of the cinema staff, relegated to taking patrons’ tickets. Hilary snaps out of her near-perpetual cheerlessness when she sees him and flashes a big smile his way. But gets nothing in return. When she later impulsively kisses Stephen, he runs off. When he later kisses her, no one runs anywhere.
Yet this compelling plot element doesn’t take center screen. Many other figures and story threads float through the narrative. Most noteworthy are Neil (Tom Brooke), an usually unobtrusive staff member who knows when it’s time to speak up, and Norman (Toby Jones), the finicky projectionist who has opted to hide from the real world by living vicariously through the films he screens from his booth.
Besides examining these characters, Empire of Light also explores themes that involve racism, mental illness, and the aforementioned infidelity. This compelling film contains yet another marvelous performance from Colman – who is part of an outstanding ensemble – and it proffers a distinctive ending that’s neither happy nor sad, but somehow just right.
Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. He went to Woodstock, is a fan of Harry Crews, Sax Rohmer, and John Wyndham, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.