There’s been an epidemic raging in cinema these past few years, and I’m not talking about COVID. I’m referring to the sudden resurgence of the “love letter to the movies” genre, in which a director either contemplates the life-changing influence of films or laments the slow death of a central movie palace—usually the only one in a tiny town, invested with the mystical power to repair relationships and teach life lessons.
Oscar loves movies like this: Think Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show or Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. The Academy has also rewarded cinema-besotted auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar, who vibrantly reverses the formula by using myriad inspirations—formative childhood incidents, silent movies, even newspaper clippings—as origin stories for the movies within his movies (Bad Education, Talk to Her, Pain and Glory).
But COVID seems to have given A-list filmmakers the space and time to really dig deep into their psyches. The year 2021 saw Kenneth Branagh reminisce on his Northern Ireland upbringing in Belfast. And late last year we had Steven Spielberg delving into his own origin story as a filmmaker in The Fabelmans.
It’s quite unfortunate that this year’s Oscar race has seen Spielberg’s sentimental approach to autobiography eclipse Sam Mendes’ own attempt at memoir in Empire of Light, a film whose deep reserves of tenderness and sadness are tempered with ambition. So much ambition that there were moments I had to wonder if the director and first-time screenwriter had bitten off more than he could chew.
The always amazing Olivia Colman plays Hilary Small (an on-the-nose name if there ever was one), a manager working at a crumbling Art Deco cinema called the Empire at a seafront town in southeast England. It is 1981, and Britain is seething with unemployment, recession and racism. Hilary is a conscientious employee, manning the box office and the concession stand, sweeping spilled popcorn from the plush but increasingly frayed interiors, reconciling ticket stubs with earnings. She has found a makeshift family in her co-workers, which include movie-buff projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and ushers like the observant Neil (Tom Brooke) and the wannabe punk Janine (Hannah Onslow).
But Hilary’s dedication to her job is a routine meant to stave off crushing depression. She appears to be in recovery from an alluded-to nervous breakdown, and a workplace affair with her pompous boss (Colin Firth, adding smarm and specificity to odious lines like “Your arse feels so good in my hands”) can’t be doing wonders for her mental health. But mostly, Hilary seems to be a personification of the decaying edifice itself, a sad ghost wandering its once-grand corridors. Having seen better days, the Empire has been forced to shutter two of its four screens, plus a sprawling upstairs bar that is now the domain of dust and pigeons.
Then a new ticket-seller joins the crew at Empire: a young, Black man named Stephen (played with appealing emotional openness by Micheal Ward). Stephen forges an instant friendship with Hilary. And when the two tumble into an affair, Hilary is at first reinvigorated before spiraling into another destructive breakdown.
It is apparent that Empire of Light has more than the magic of movies on its mind. Like a cineplex, it contains many movies within its narrative. One plot strand tries to explore the ravages of mental health; another is the May-October romance between its two leads. The requisite tribute to cinema is contained in the thread where the effusive Norman takes Stephen under his wing. As Norman points out the inner workings of his two projectors, Mendes dissects the magic and machinery of movies: “Sprockets. Pulleys. But nothing happens without light.”
Ah, but there’s more: the Empire is also preparing for the prestigious regional premiere of the season’s big hit, Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. (Paul McCartney might make an appearance!) And as if the movie didn’t have enough on its plate, it also portrays racism through Stephen’s run-ins with Thatcher-era skinheads.
One set piece in the film’s last third, in which the Empire crew watch a skinhead march passing outside the cinema’s glass doors as if it were a real-life movie, tries its best to make these disparate plot strands coalesce. But despite its best efforts, Empire of Light never manages to make them cohere—the best it can do is testify to the power of film as a means of escape and healing.
Empire of Light’s biggest asset is Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Deakins uses the movie palace’s Art Deco contours, the curving shoreline, the lines of the walls in Hilary’s apartment to not just frame the characters, but frame them within frames to emphasize their intimacy or isolation.
Deakins’ artful lines and stark silhouettes (rewarded by the Academy as Empire of Light’s sole Oscar nomination) foreground the characters as they live their small lives against a backdrop of beauty that they don’t see but only we as an audience can. Combined with Olivia Colman’s impeccable acting choices and a sensitive score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Empire of Light shines with subtle humanity.
Empire of Light opens in Ayala Mall cinemas on February 22, Wednesday. There will be sneak previews on February 13 and 14.
Photos from IMDB