In Sam Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light’, a Faded Cinema Still Holds Romance

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A middle-aged white woman in a navy uniform looks out from ticket booth contemplatively
Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light.' (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh; Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)

The top floor of the Empire Cinema, as seen in the opening moments of Empire of Light, is a wasteland. Gilt mirrors in the hallway reflect nothing but their own worn-out, tarnished edges, while wayward pigeons flutter around the empty Art Deco lounge. Alighting on booths and tables and window sills, the birds ignore the ocean view and the distant blue horizon. Downstairs, the main theater is frayed around the edges, but still open to the public. The ruby red curtain and matching seats shimmer with a faded glamor when the lights come up.

On the marquee out front, the rotating names of movies — Raging Bull, Chariots of Fire, Being There — situate Sam Mendes’ new film around 1980. Empire of Light isn’t just an elegy to one English movie theater — it’s a plaintive farewell to a specific age of cinema. And Hilary (played by Olivia Colman), the Empire Cinema’s “duty manager,” embodies the spirit of the building’s interior decay.

Hilary is a poetry-loving, solitary soul who’s weighed down by the complications of a messy inner life. Early in the film, when she visits a doctor’s office, we find out she’s not just suffering from middle-aged malaise. The doctor asks her how she’s responding to a prescription for lithium. She pauses and quietly responds that she’s fine, but numb. She’ll get used to feeling that way, he says.

Smiling middle-aged white woman at carnival, left side of young Black man's face
Olivia Colman and Michael Ward in'Empire of Light.' (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh; Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)

Mendes doesn’t use flashbacks or voiceovers in Empire of Light to explicate Hilary’s troubled history. Instead, the film progresses organically, focused on her present state: She appears to be satisfied with her job. It’s low pressure. She turns on lights, serves candy at the concession stand, sells tickets and sweeps up popcorn. Her coworkers, a collection of amiable misfits who accept each other, aren’t there for Mendes to produce petty, extraneous squabbles. They happily go about their business.

A shift in the status quo comes with the introduction of Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee at the Empire. An aspiring architect waiting for a place to open at a university, he’s living with his mother in the meantime. On his first day, Hilary tours him through the cinema’s abandoned top floor, where he finds a pigeon with a broken wing. With some ingenuity, Stephen creates a makeshift sling for the bird. It’s not lost on either of them that Hilary’s wings are also in need of mending.

Young Black man in suit and hat lit by golden light
Micheal Ward in 'Empire of Light.' (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)

Their unlikely friendship is juxtaposed through musical choices. Stephen loves ska music in general and The Beat in particular. At home after their first kiss, Hilary plays Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio.” She’s from another generation, taking ballroom dance lessons to alleviate her sense of isolation. At the same time, she’s entangled in a furtive office affair with another lost soul: Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), the Empire Cinema’s married manager.

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Roger Deakins’ cinematography tempers what must sound like a melodramatic plot. At the film’s start, the camera coldly assesses each room in the Empire Cinema — just as Stanley Kubrick’s lens examined the hotel in The Shining. And while the theater is a major presence in Empire of Light, it isn’t an antagonistic one. It’s a gathering place, where the characters bump into each other with fraught or tender emotions, warming the empty spaces.

Olivia Colman does have the Jack Nicholson role here, but not as a snowbound, ax-wielding writer. Mendes’ script broadly references Nicholson’s body of work from the 1970s. In Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, Nicholson’s antiheroes either couldn’t conform to society’s rules or actively rebelled against them.

Olivia Colman and Michael Ward on New Year's Eve in 'Empire of Light.' (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved)

Similarly, outside of the Empire Cinema’s beautiful walls, Hilary’s mental illness underlines her inability to fit in. But here the opposition is internal; she’s fighting against her own troubled mind to find a way to connect. As her friendship with Stephen begins to change, she sees him subjected to racist attacks, both verbal and physical. When it’s most emotionally persuasive, Empire of Light acts as a companion piece to Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s anthology about West Indian immigrants in England.

But this film is told from Hilary’s point of view, not Stephen’s, as it explores the dawning of her consciousness to a wider, often harsher world. At the height of one of her manic episodes, she recites a few lines from W.H. Auden’s poem “Death’s Echo.” The last stanza ends with an exhortation, “Dance, dance, dance till you drop.” Empire of Light studies a woman who’s desperately trying to shake off her feeling of numbness. As the cinema’s exhausted muse and its battered figurehead, she seeks the emotional solace promised in so many films.

‘Empire of Light’ opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, Dec. 7.