Review: Empire of Light

Having worked in a movie theater shortly before those years in which Empire of Light is set, I can attest to the accuracy of its depiction of how films were presented to paying customers at the time, not to mention the peculiar aspects of the work environment. And while this recognition sparked a gratifying feeling of nostalgia that I hadn’t expected, it didn’t necessarily intensify my appreciation for the movie as a movie, probably because the matters it was most concerned with had little to do with movies, or movie theaters. The setting was just that—a setting. It could have just as easily told the same story had it taken place in a Denny’s. 

Except, of course, this is England, the coastal resort town of Margate, to be exact, and the year is 1980, when punk had given way to two-tone ska and National Front goons were asserting their right to make trouble for anyone who wasn’t white, working class, and incoherent like them. Within this fraught social environment, the Empire theater, a former movie palace that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a multiplex, stands for certain old-fashioned values that are reflected in the somewhat defeated air of the place. Olivia Colman plays the middle aged manager, Hilary, who personifies this mood: outwardly genteel, fair but firm with both staff and customers, but eminently distracted. Eventually, we come to understand that Hilary is in what can only be described as a one-sided sexual affair with her married boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), meaning he summons her to his office when he feels like it and has his way with her. And yet, while Hilary obviously dislikes these trysts, they don’t seem to be the central source of her melancholy. Enter Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee who himself seems unmoored, though more in a material fashion. Stephen aspires to be an architect, but hasn’t made enough of an effort. Then again, Stephen is Black, which means he has to make more of an effort when it comes to material gain.

Enticed by his youth and relative nonchalance, Hilary takes to Stephen and brightens up a bit. Stephen, in turn, is attracted to Hilary’s candor and kindness, which fail to mask a mental illness that eventually manifests in an outburst of recrimination that leads to her institutionalization, and not, we learn, for the first time. If this sounds like a spoiler, there’s much more to come, and Mendes, who wrote the script, meticulously weaves Hilary’s and Stephen’s respective situations into the historical tapestry of that very specific time and place. Thanks to Roger Deakins’ evocative cinematography and the careful production design, the story Mendes wants to tell feels completely of a piece with this milieu, even if his conception of the characters never takes hold. It isn’t until the last scene that we learn Hilary has never even watched a movie in the place where she works, and as she sits down to take in a new feature called Being There, you think to yourself: This is where the story should have begun.

Opens Feb. 23 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shibuya Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Empire of Light home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 20th Century Studios

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