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TIFF 2022 Review: Empire of Light – “Olivia Colman is an acting powerhouse”

A lonely mentally ill movie theatre employee living in an English seaside town in the early 1980s learns about the power of friendship and cinema.    

Managing the front of the house of a cinema that has seen better days is Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) who is middle-aged, lonely, mentally ill and having an affair with her married manager Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth).  A new employee Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired with a charming swagger that masks the emotional strain resulting from regular racial abuse.   Despite the significant age difference between them, Hilary and Stephen find comfort with each other sexually and emotionally.

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Olivia Colman is an acting powerhouse with another Oscar nomination coming her way. You can just look into her eyes to see the years of turmoil that can only be restrained so long before she experiences another psychotic breakdown.  The supporting cast is wonderful as the staff at the theatre are supportive rather than engaging in the typical acts of mockery.  Those are reserved for the patrons and the outsiders who seethe with contempt.  Toby Jones is another natural treasure as he does not have to do much to say a lot, Tom Brooke is solid as the aware and caring Neil, and Michael Ward imbues Stephen with a cockiness and soulfulness.   The one weak link is Colin Firth and it is a combination of the role and performance as he is never able to rise above of the level buffoonery.

Most of the sexual encounters are silhouetted and shrouded in shadows which makes them present but without being explicit.  The editing is leisurely which allows for the performances to unfold and breathe while the cinematography literally and figuratively shines at the conclusion showcasing the relationship between the projection booth and the audience where mechanics give way to living celluloid dreams.  The same can be said for the actual production of Empire of Light as the artisans behind the scenes and actors in the front of camera have crafted a world that feels lived in and explores the need for people to connect and the wonder that occurs when it does happen.

The 47th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8-18, 2022, and for more information visit tiff.net.    

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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