New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Empire of Light

Empire of Light Movies and Shakers December 10, 2022

Sam Mendes creates a visually beautiful love-note to the communal experience of watching great movies in this semi-autobiographical film, loosely based on his mother. Coleman is a master of her craft who once again exemplifies what it means to show an actor’s command and range whether she’s in a rage, in excruciating anguish, or sweetly in love.

It’s packed with issues including mental health problems, work place #meToo, an interracial romance, and racial injustice. Writer/Director Mendes gets up close and personal with the personalities and the problems of those who run a grand old theatre in the 1980’s. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, 1917), working again with Mendes, shoots elegant film of the picturesque British seaside town and it’s movie theater, like the one that stirred the director’s love for cinema as a child. 

Mendes adds a nice touch by showing the theatre marquees with the titles playing during that era which include everything from Stir Crazy to Being There and Raging Bull. And there is triumph for English Cinema and big excitement for the staff when The Empire Theatre scores hosting the premiere of Chariots of Fire. 

Olivia Colman as Hilary is always so busy sweeping up popcorn, checking ticket stubs and even sexually servicing her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). He makes wan attempts at telling Hilary she means something to him, though it’s clear how little he cares, as long as he gets what he wants. 

She never has the time to watch any of the films she longs to see on the big screen because she’s so busy watching after everything and everybody else. They include the quirky, punk-haired Janine (Hannah Onslow) and the quiet, empathetic, Neil (Tom Brooke), and cinephile projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) . Love the fun repartee with her co-workers, but when the boss calls Hilary in surreptitiously on business for his sex breaks, which they all know about, you can see the discomfort and disdain on her face.

Hilary seems to go through life in a fog. The slow reveal is her mental health through her visits with a fairly disengaged doctor who cares for her about as much as Ellis. Coleman doesn’t fail to give another excellent performance in a movie that doesn’t always equal her talent. Love seeing her repartee with her co-workers. She’s got a smile that belies what’s going on inside her head, but her eyes give it away.

The new employee Stephen (British actor, Micheal Ward) is an unusual hire for Ellis. Stephen is Black, the son of an African immigrant who is a nurse at the local hospital. Stephen likes being included as an equal with the other employees, in contrast to the racism and hate he faces on the other side of the theater doors. Ward has such a sweet presence on camera is impossible to not like him in this role.

When Hillary shows the handsome, soft-spoken Stephen around the theater to get him up to speed with the job, she comes to life. They strike up a friendship. But when she shows him the secret, now dilapidated ballroom on the second floor of the once elegant theater, it becomes more when he shows her his gentle nature, caring for an injured pigeon found in the open second floor space. 

Eventually, they let their emotions get the best of them, being intimate on a regular basis. Feeling so good, she stops taking her meds predictably leading to inevitable conflict and descent for the fragile Hilary. The romance between Stephen and Hilary doesn’t ring true though give them credit for a game effort, but the two actors work hard to get past cliches they face in the Mendes script.

For a film that is ostensibly about the glory of the movies, there isn’t much shown from the great films playing at the Empire. The only character Director Mendes (Skyfall, 1917) uses as his surrogate film lover is The Empire’s projectionist Norman (Toby Jones). His projection booth is a museum dedicated to the  of cinema with photos and posters of the greats, along with his cherished projector. Norman elicits the only true emotion for the grand movie palaces and classic movies of the past. 

Projectionist Norman serves as Mendes’ alter ego, expressing how watching a movie is really tricking the mind into seeing what’s missing between the frames. What’s missing between the frames in this movie is a cohesive script trying to tie too many issues together. But Mendes and Deakins still create some movie magic with exquisite visuals of the past. 

Searchlight Pictures          1 Hour 59 Minutes           R

The post Empire of Light first appeared on Movies and Shakers.

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