Halfway through Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) explains the science of movie magic to theater worker Hilary (Olivia Colman). He tells her about the illusion of movement, the number of frames that occur per second (it’s 24!) and, of course, the importance of that beam of light.
Within the context of a film, a scene like this often carries a lot of weight. For Sam in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, for example, the description of the inner workings of a projector provides a young boy with his life’s purpose. In Giuseppe Tornatore’s beloved Cinema Paradiso, a similar exchange illustrates the palpable weight that a simple dream can hold. Almost all of the time, a “How It Works: The Movies” scene is meant to convey one thing at its core: Cinema is a beautiful, magical thing.
In Empire of Light, however, the presence of cinema is a little less straightforward. Hilary (Colman), a dutiful cinema worker on the south coast of England in 1980, sees her day-to-day become a little less mundane when new hire Stephen (Michael Ward) enters the picture, and the two form an unexpected and tender friendship.
But things aren’t all rainbows and butterflies. Not only is Hilary in the throes of an unhappy affair with her married manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), but she’s also just been prescribed lithium, which numbs her to the joys of the world. Stephen is the constant target of racist, Thatcher-era nationalism. As Empire of Light develops, so do its protagonists’ struggles. Hilary’s mental state becomes increasingly precarious, while attacks on Stephen grow more violent by the day.
And, tying together the massive stash of adversities that Mendes has piled into Light—racism, Margaret Thatcher, bipolar disorder and trauma, to name a few—is none other than the power of cinema. Mendes takes an unmistakably loving approach to movies, adding a twinkling, melancholy score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor nearly every time the beach-side cinema appears on the screen. Adding to this idealistic effect is Roger Deakins, who frames every shot of the space like it’s his most prized possession, bathing even the most mundane detail in his signature glowing, golden light.
Of course, placing cinema amidst Light’s weighty themes has the capability to convey a powerful message. After all, isn’t it a wonderful thing that, in times of tumult, we can turn to that little beam of light?
But by the end of Light, Mendes has taken his message a little too literally. Many characters suffer harrowing atrocities, and while it isn’t a stretch to believe that they take comfort and solace in movies, the film seems intent on resolving itself in a way that suggests that movies might actually have the power to solve issues like racism and mental illness.
This is, of course, a goofy thing to imply. But more than that, it hints that Mendes didn’t believe in the power of his own movie without some sort of air-tight resolution—that he worried that his “power of cinema” angle would come across as less convincing if cinema didn’t actually transform the character’s lives within it, as opposed to simply making them a little better.
This lack of nuance is a shame, as Light often runs with unexpected, powerful choices and is much better off for it. To center the film on a woman whose brash, sometimes selfish decisions periodically harm her peers without fearing that she will be “unlikable,” for example, is an instinct that, if applied to the overall arc of the film, could have opened it up to the nuance that it deserves.
Hilary is a remarkable character, at once selfish and nurturing, cruel and empathetic. Few could play her with such a sense of precision as the great Colman, who brings vulnerability, awkwardness and heart to the character, resulting in one of her most moving performances to date. Newcomer Ward (Lovers Rock) complements Colman’s performance, playing Stephen with an undeniable softness, while still allowing feelings of hurt and rejection to bubble plainly just below the surface. The scenes where his tough façade cracks are some of the best of the film, both because it’s where Ward’s acting chops shine the brightest, and because his honesty does justice to the struggles of the character.
If only Mendes hadn’t resisted the urge to apply Stephen’s “sometimes pain can’t be fixed” sentiment to his film as a whole.
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes
Stars: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie
Release Date: December 9, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.