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TIFF 2022 Review: Empire of Light – “Beautiful and elegant”

Courtesy of TIFF

It’s 1980, on the verge of ’81, in a town on the southern coast of England.  Across from the ocean, stands The Empire, a beautiful old movie theatre with art deco architecture and red velvet seats.  It’s the type of place that now would be somewhat novel to watch a movie in, but this theatre is in need of some refurbishment, its upper two cinemas completely closed, the beautiful lounge upon its top floor currently home to just a flock of pigeons.

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Hilary (Olivia Colman) is the front-of-house manager and candy seller.  She’s been away from the theatre for a while, recovering from mental illness, recently returning to her post.  Like many of us, she has a bit of a crush on Colin Firth, rather his character, who runs the theatre and who creepily calls on her only for the odd dalliance in his office.  Hilary though seems empty, sad.  Having started on lithium treatment, she feels numb, yet she is somehow managing to hold it all together – just.

So when Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, starts working at the theatre, Hilary is more than ready to let a little light into her life.  He wants to be an architect, but hasn’t been let into university yet. This man, despite all that he has been through, the aggression he has been subjected to in the racially charged landscape of 80’s Britain, has hope and optimism for his future. He finds a like-minded confidante in Hilary, who has suffered a different type of damage to her soul, and the two begin an improbable love story that awakens Hilary’s spirit.

Olivia Colman, simply put, is one of the best actors working today.  No matter what her character calls for, she delivers, be it in the subtlety of a woman trapped in a begrudging routine or the manic emotion of a downward spiral.  Empire of Light is her show, and watching Colman work, is never work at all.  Equally incredible then is the ability of Ward to keep up with her, with a tender, gentle performance that adds depth and nuance to the film.  Supporting turns by the aforementioned Firth, Tanya Moodie and Toby Jones (who plays the theatre’s enthusiastic projectionist) all stand out.  

Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) writes and directs here, crafting a film that tries to balance the beauty and magic of cinema with more substantial, racially charged subtext.  However, these themes are largely undeveloped.  More insight into Stephen’s experiences could have created a more impactful film where these feel like less of an afterthought. The balance here is off with this feeling like neither a love letter to the movies nor any sort of commentary or condemnation to the racism experienced within this time period.  Thankfully, Mendes has Colman and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins to help elevate the film, and that combination really, in the end, makes this one to watch.  Empire of Light is beautiful and elegant, even as it gets a little muddled along the way, never really living up to its full potential.

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