Set in early 1980s England at a movie theater, it’d be easy for Empire of Light to slip into being a saccharine nostalgia dose and a love letter to the cinema. Thankfully, director Sam Mendes finds much more in this heartfelt story. He taps into how cinema offers more of an escape from the world and an easier means of lightening lives of trouble during turbulent times rather than just marveling at its many wonders.
The middle-aged Hillary (Olivia Colman) is one of the more accomplished theater floor workers at the Empire theater. Her deceptive manager Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), has a backroom affair with her. Her mental disorder leads to her living a quiet life of prescription drugs and drinking, spending her evenings alone. Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young and inspired black man seeking to prove himself, soon comes into her life as the newest theater employee. His cheerful attitude and charm make him an instant fancy of Hillary, and a few romance blooms between them.
The film takes advantage of the era for more than just the familiar titles gracing the theater’s marquee. Aspects of racial discrimination and street protests are not shied away from in this setting. The horrors of 80s England politics become so loud that it crashes through the cinema doors and confronts the leads head-on. It becomes not just a burden but a key factor in how Hillary and Stephen decide whether or not to keep their relationship. Though more subtle, there’s also an acknowledgment of how those with mental disorders are treated unfairly in a world that won’t listen or recognize problems beyond the chemical.
Colman’s performance is remarkable for her range in this role. She goes from being the quiet woman in the breakroom to the cheerful employee on the floor to the bitter victim still unable to trust others. There’s a rather sobering moment when Stephen attempts to comfort Hillary when she’s drunk and angry at her flat. Despite her issues, she furiously bites back when Stephen tries to show empathy with words she can recognize right out of a health manual. There’s a swirling of emotions when Hillary is offered help, and she bites back by stating that she’s not some pet project which needs someone else’s assistance.
At the same time, Ward’s performance is also incredibly multi-faceted for his dreams, frustrations, and ability to reach out to others. He wants to do a good job but recognizes that the racial tensions of the time are so infuriating that he might be unable to maintain his cool. There’s a give-and-take for the influence he brings within the cinema. When Hillary shows off the abandoned upstairs lounge of the theater, Stephen impresses her with his ability to fix pigeons with broken wings. Later, the projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) will showcase the mechanics and philosophy behind movie projection and how light and speed make the filmstrip’s dark parts disappear.
Compared to another cinema-loving film in the past few weeks, The Fabelmans, the usage of movies within Empire of Light is more of a comfort than a project to be divulged. There are shades of the film leaning this way, especially with how Norman drones in the breakroom briefly about the effects of smoking on theater screens. He spends most of the movie speaking so highly of his craft, but we later learn that he has a similarly sad past like Hillary’s that he chooses not to address. The denial of the past fills him with a certain sadness that warns Hillary of his conflicted feelings for Stephen.
There’s a certain lightness to the pacing and an earnest nature to how this historical age-disparity romance blooms. There are some genuinely funny moments that are balanced with an uncomfortable bluntness, such as when Hillary divulges a sexual affair via Shakespeare (“To fuck or not to fuck!”). There’s a tenderness and sweetness to how Hillary and Stephen progress, but it never meanders too long. Even the amount of time that passes proceeds at a brisk pace, where the opening Christmas setting quickly transitions to New Year’s Eve, and the change in management seems to happen within the blink of an eye. Perhaps the biggest flaw of this film is that it rarely feels like we get to spend as much time with these characters as we’d like. That being said, it perfectly suits the film’s motif of the passage of time and the desperation to feel something in our lives that never seem to slow down.
Empire of Light is a light and loving depiction of an unorthodox romance amid the chaos of the 80s with comfort in the cinema. There are perhaps some extra doses of tenderness present that make this film border on saccharine melodrama, but there’s a balance of the romantic, frightening, and sweetness to make this film an evenly adoring diversion. While it could have used a few more scenes, the ones in the film are strong enough to warrant the expected shot of Hillary watching a movie alone and making the world feel less lonely for a couple of hours.