Writer/Director Sam Mendes’s follow-up to his Oscar Winning 1917, Empire of Light, is a showcase for Academy Award Winning acting powerhouse Olivia Coleman.
Empire of Light is a mixture of a Coming-of-Age story and a May to December romance both of which are never fully explored. Rather writer/director Sam Mendes’s film is less concrete and more of a mood and a feeling. A memory of an era long gone but not forgotten. The result is two wonderful performances by Olivia Coleman and newcomer Michael Ward.
Rather than focusing on a plot Empire of Light follows the relationship between Hilary (Coleman) an assistant manager at the Empire a two-house movie theater off the English Coast and newly hired Stephen (Ward). What begins as a tender understanding and interest in one another quickly turns physical. Though complications arise, it becomes obvious that Hilary has secrets that manifest themselves before Stephen’s loving eyes. Incapable of helping or even comprehending what Hilary’s mental deterioration means. All culminating in the Thatcher Poll Tax Riots that changes everything.
Mendes’ film is one of archetypes and what many would consider cliches. One would groan out loud at the various “turns” that occur if it were not for the cast that not only include Coleman but luminaries like Toby Jones and Colin Firth that keep everything with a ring of truthfulness.
Coleman like her fellow cast members are incapable of false notes even if plot mechanics are taken from a movie-of-the-week plot book. Her Hilary is never one to be pitied or asked for sympathy. Coleman as in many of her performances is an expert in empathy and allowing an audience into the world of her characters without any sort of visual trickery. One would be inclined to compare this to last year’s excellent The Lost Daughter but that would be doing both Coleman’s respective performances and the films themselves a disservice.
Though Empire of Light deals in those cliches its character work is where it draws its power. Both Jones and Firth have minor roles but give them such complexity and intelligence that one can’t help but be won over. We’ve seen these characters before in different settings but in the way that each of these titans of acting is able to wrestle humane and wonderful performances is a testament to each.
As with any Mendes films, there must be a mention of the truly wonderful collaboration that the director has with cinematographer Roger Deakins. The duo have worked together since Mendes’ first film American Beauty and only have become stronger and stronger. Deakins’s cinematographer is everything you expect from a film called Empire of Light. There is a refinement and muscular work that is both invisible and visible. The crumbling cold world of the English Coastal town of the 1980s in the hands of Deakins is one of a dream of a photograph of a memory. No matter what one thinks of the film thematically and storywise will not fault Deakins considerably accomplished work.
In the end, Empire of Light is greater than the sum of its parts. Both Coleman and Ward shine as the May to December romantic couple aided by its supporting case and the artistry of cinematographer Roger Deakins.