Olivia Colman Is Heartbreaking In Sam Mendes' Empire of Light [Review]

TELLURIDE – When has Olivia Colman ever been bad in anything? Think about it for a moment. Can you remember any performance of hers where you reacted with an “Eh, she was fine”? The answer is you have to do some serious digging to find a miss (we tried). Colman is simply one of the great film and television actors of our time. So, it’s no shock then that she’s once again utterly superb in Sam Mendes’ new drama “Empire of Light,” which debuted at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.

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About 10 minutes into “Empire,” however, you wonder if Colman has played this character before. It’s 1981 and Colman is introduced as Hilary, a single, forty-something woman who works at the Empire Cinema, a movie theater on the coast of England. She’s quiet, she barely interacts with her much younger co-workers, and seems to have a solitary life at home. Something terrible has happened in her past, but she’s not talking about it. You might think a Grecian holiday was in order to spice things up, but, no, not this time around. There is much more at play.

We quickly learn that Hilary is having a sexual fling with the theater manager and her boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth, perfectly subdued). And although she has trepidation about their private liaisons in his office, it’s clear his minor affections mean something to her, or she needs them to. When she visits her doctor for a routine checkup, we discover Hilary has been prescribed lithium, a common treatment for schizophrenia. She informs the physician she feels muffled. She does not verbalize it, but she clearly doesn’t feel like herself anymore.

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The arrival of a new employee, Stephen (Michael Ward, fantastic), grabs Hilary’s attention. Whether it’s a quick glance of the skin on the small of his back, his passion for a popular new reggae sound, or his kindness for an injured pigeon, she’s transfixed. Stephen, on the other hand, notices her in ways her colleagues do not. On New Year’s Eve, he decides to leave a dance club to join her on the roof of the cinema to watch the fireworks. She was alone, now she isn’t, and, to his surprise, she kisses him.

Soon, the pair are swept up in a May-December romance, a relationship that brings Hilary so much joy she begins to skip her daily lithium regimen. And, eventually, Stephen encounters a side of Hillary he could never have imagined. He may be in his early ‘20s with a long life ahead of him but as his mother (Tanya Moodie, very good) remarks later on, “He had some living to do.”

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Mendes remarks that “Empire” was partially inspired by the social change going on during lockdown. That’s not surprising considering Stephen’s storyline. He could have set this tale during any time period, but he chose the early ’80s because of its political and cultural significance in U.K. history. The arrival of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of racist skinheads, the new rock and pop sounds, and the classic films of the time. At one point, the cinema is playing “All That Jazz” and “The Blues Brothers.” A few months later, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s “Stir Crazy” will arrive. The theater even hosts a “regional” premiere for “Chariots of Fire.” These are the director’s teenage years and his love for cinema is at the forefront of this story. Even when it doesn’t seem to matter to either Hillary or Stephen’s journeys (hint: it does).

You can argue that despite a varied career Mendes has never directed a film of this vein. The closest to it would be 2009’s “Away we Go,” and perhaps it’s only comparable in scale. Over the past decade Mendes has directed two mammoth James Bond flicks and the one-shot war epic “1917.” He hasn’t made a film this small in some time and there are a few creaks and bumps in the road despite the presence of longtime collaborators such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and editor Lee Roth. Despite Deakins and Mendes’ shorthand in framing gorgeous images, there are moments, especially in the second act, where the film could simply use a bit more energy. Luckily, for Mendes, Colman provides it soon after and when the movie needs it most.

Actors and filmmakers will often refer to the arc of their characters. Mendes has written a fantastic one for Colman and to say she embraces it is a mild understatement. She pulls Hilary deep out of her core, and at times her performance becomes a truly visceral experience. She embodies Hilary’s pain and longing. She’s not alone. Ward carries the film’s racism storyline (when he shouldn’t have to) and Toby Jones, as the Empire Cinema’s projectionist, sneaks up on you with his own hidden heartbreak. Like Hilary and Stephen, we’re so lucky we can watch it on a big screen. [B]

“Empire of Light” will open in theaters on Dec. 9.

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