Life without cinema is possible, but pointless. Film buffs have long since internalized this, as does Sam Mendes: the British director has one with “Empire of Light”. Movie about the magic of the cinema, about the crackling of the celluloid and the beam of light from the projector that penetrates 24 frames per second. But his heroine doesn’t recognize it: Hilary (Olivia Colman), in her mid-forties, marches every day into a venerable cinema palace on the coast of southern England, where she greets guests, sells tickets or grabs the popcorn from the armchairs after the performances. But she never sees films.
It is clear that this cinema employee is missing something. But she also, as is becoming clear, has bipolar disorder – and this is where it gets personal for Sam Mendes. He said that his mother Valerie was also bipolar, after his parents divorced he grew up with her, endured complications and mood swings, experienced men’s attempts at manipulation. All of this goes through Hilary, who is not a mother in the film. She lives alone, has to be hospitalized again and again, often seems sedated and lets the cinema manager (Colin Firth) sexually exploit her.
“Empire of Light” is set in the early 1980s – the time when the filmmaker, born in 1965, himself movie theater discovered. You get what’s being played, the “Blues Brothers” for example, “All that Jazz” or Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”. Once there was even a premiere in Hilary’s cinema: The later Oscar winner “Chariots of Fire” is to be shown, famous guests have announced themselves. It’s a big deal in this small town on the coast, the mayor arrives, the audience appears in black tie, you hear the theme music by Vangelis…
It is certainly no coincidence that several cinema films are currently invoking the magic of the medium, as things did not look good during the Corona years for the cinemas, which were closed for months. The audience turned away, preferring to tiktok or stream series, the communal experience of cinema mutated into a health hazard. Someone had to line up for the nostalgic rescue of honor.
The video age is not yet here, but cinemas are empty
And the great directors of today even shared the job: Damien Chazelle recreated the madness and excess of Hollywood in the 1920s so explicitly in “Babylon” that today’s audience recoiled in irritation. In The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg recalled his own childhood in the 1950s, when he took his first cinematic steps. And now Sam Mendes with a story about an English cinema in the 1980s: The paintwork is already a bit off, and not all the magnificent halls of the old film palace are used anymore. The video age is yet to come.
“Empire of Light” takes a look behind the scenes of the cinema, the colleagues at the popcorn stand or at the entrance are a tight-knit community. A young man starts out as a temp and Hilary will fall in love with him. But their love is not under a lucky star: Stephen (Micheal Ward) is at least twenty years younger than her, comes from a different social class – and is black.
But he remains a pure film character, a one-dimensional character like the manipulative boss. Mendes uses it to advance the plot, to tell about inequality, Thatcherism and racism. There come beating neo-Nazis (and go again), there you unmask an abuser. In between, pigeons are petted or film reels are changed. It looks similarly constructed, as it reads, even the main character Hilary doesn’t seem to come close. Which is probably also due to the fact that the author here – is called Sam Mendes.
Hollywood’s best screenwriters wrote the templates for his great successes “American Beauty” and “Times of Rebellion”, his Bond films “Skyfall” and “Spectre” had their own dedicated screenwriting team. It was not until his last film “1917” that Mendes also worked as a co-author – and even then the staging in a single take was much stronger than the story. His solo screenplay debut shows that not every cinema master is also an auteur filmmaker who can create a film entirely from within.
Why is “Empire of Light” still good to watch? Because Mendes’ qualities as a director are fully present; because cinematographer Roger Deakins takes gorgeous pictures; and because you love Olivia Colman in every role anyway. In the end, Hilary, who she plays, is of course still allowed to sit in the cinema, the projectionist only inserted Hal Ashby’s film “Being There” for her. “Life is a state of mind,” says Peter Sellers as Mr. Chance, who is always on TV. And that says it all for Hilary too.
Empire of Light, GB/USA 2022 – Director and Screenplay: Sam Mendes. Camera: Roger Deakins. Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth. Walt Disney, 115 minutes. Theatrical release: April 20, 2023.