With Empire of Light, director Sam Mendes delivers a powerful period drama that juggles mental health and the magic of cinema in what may very well be the finest film of this awards season. The Oscar winning filmmaker has assembled an incredible team for the project, including frequent collaborator and Oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (1917, Blade Runner 2047).
Deakins beautifully captures the production design of Mark Tildesley, with every frame of the film feeling like a delicate piece of art. Both men are locks for Academy Award nominations, as is Mendes for what is arguably his finest film to date.
Empire of Light is a love letter to cinema that brilliantly navigates topics such as mental health, abusive of power, racism, ageism, and the uplifting power of cinema through the lens of the UK in the 1980s.
Two-time Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Soul) enhance the film with a textured piano-led score. The score’s impact on the overall film is reminiscent of Thomas Newman’s brilliant work on Mendes’ 1999 Best Picture winner, American Beauty.
In many ways Empire of Light feels like a spiritual successor to American Beauty. Both films feature a similar renaissance of their protagonist, with Colman’s portrayal of Hilary and newcomer Michael Ward’s work rivaling the buzz that surrounded Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening during their Oscar run nearly 24 years ago.
The film opens with the poster of The Blues Brothers, the classic 1980s American comedy which is currently playing in U.K. theaters. This particular theater, located in a small coastal town, is managed by Hilary (Oscar winner Olivia Colman). Hilary is much older than her employees and seems to be isolated in her own world.
In many ways, Hilary seems to be in a slump, much like Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty. However, the circumstances for Hilary are much more human and tragic.
Hilary is subjected to awkward sexual advances from the theater’s owner, Mr. Ellis (a pitch perfect Colin Firth), and she seemingly goes along it while displaying an internal struggle over the workplace “engagements.”
It’s clear that Mr. Ellis is abusing the power-dynamic of theater owner and employee, but it gets far worse as Hilary is subjected to an awkward encounter at a restaurant when Mr. Ellis arrives with his wife. The cringe-worthy moment see Hilary leave the restaurant, feeling guilt and discomfort in equal measure with the audience.
Hilary’s isolation is further explained when we see her in a therapy session with her doctor. It’s alluded to that she’s previously spent time away at a type of treatment facility for a breakdown and the doctor discusses her Lithium prescription (the standard treatment for bipolar disorder at the time).
Hilary’s life is thrown for a much needed loop with the arrival of a new theater employee, Stephen (an electrifying Michael Ward). This young African American brings a warm and energetic presence to the building, and it’s not lost on his fellow coworkers. This upbeat and inquisitive young man is quite interested in the inner workings of the theater and is a true fan of films.
Early in his tenure, Stephen asks Hilary to show him the closed off upstairs theater portion. At first resistant, Hilary lets Stephen chip away at her shell and they investigate the upstairs cinema which is in significant disrepair.
It’s a rather bonding moment between the two and they find a wounded bird suffering from a broken wing. With Stephen’s knowledge and Hilary’s help, the pair rehabilitate the bird until it can safely fly away over several weeks.
The bird’s healing progress is a nice storytelling tool to show the passage of time and the building of this relationship building between Stephen and Hilary. It’s clear that Hilary is coming out of her shell and she stops taking her medicine, seems like a good sign at the time.
On the eve of the holiday, Hilary and Stephen end up on the roof where they share a view of the fireworks going off in the sky. It’s at this moment that Hilary makes the bold move to kiss Stephen. She is rightly horrified of her own potential misuse of the power dynamic, but Stephen is incredibly sweet with her following the intimacy and the two begin what would be considered a taboo relationship which is quite beautiful.
It seems Hilary is coming more fully into herself, and she forcefully stands up for herself when she declares in front of the staff that she won’t be meeting Mr. Ellis in his office to “help him” despite his insistence.
It’s here that Hilary’s rise reaches its peak and her mental health begins to fail, first with her lashing out at Stephen on the beach and later with a tremendous breakdown at work which sees her make a rambling speech at a robust film premiere and later out Mr. Ellis as an adulterer in the theater lobby.
Hilary must go away once again and Stephen is left stunned, but knowing that he must move on with his life. The film takes a moment to regain its footing as Hilary returns from the treatment, appearing as numb as she was in the beginning.
Hilary and Stephen run into each other and Stephen is with a new girl, who introduces herself at the end of their conversation. Stephen encourages Hilary to return to the theater and work. He also has consistently pushed her to watch a film. Stephen can’t believe she’s never sat through a movie at work because she felt it was inappropriate or not really something to do.
Hilary does return to work in the theater and the focus of the film shifts soley to Stephen’s troubles, namely being black in a bigoted time in the U.K.’s history. Hilary follows him one day and sees bullies taunt him on the street, of course, she doesn’t know how to bring it up to him.
Stephen’s lively energy at work seems lessened by the street encounter and a particularly prickly customer. This racist encounters lead Stephen to have his own breakdown, and while Hilary tries to comfort him, Stephen won’t have any of it. He demands that she address the racist feelings bubbling up in society, and not ignore it.
This is dark foreshadowing as a mob soon marches down the street and several branch off to overrun the theater and attack Stephen. It’s shot in a manner that’s deeply disturbing, questioning if this is the end for Stephen. Hilary waits in the hospital for a report and finally gets to see him, which is a heartwarming moment. Hilary brings him a vinyl gift and they a nice moment, and Stephen’s nurse mother subtly acknowledges Hilary’s relationship with her son and the power that it has.
Hilary is moved by the moment and returns to the theater right at closing time, to ask the projectionist (Toby Jones) if she can watch a movie. Jones’ character obliges, loading up the film canisters as Hilary takes her seat and the score takes hold of the audience.
It’s truly a magical moment and it feels wholly earned from Mendes and company. The story is a beautiful journey of two isolated characters that find each other and fully accept who they are without judgment.
Hilary sees herself as seemingly past her prime as she struggling with mental health and Stephen feels judged because of his race in a particularly bigoted time in the U.K.’s past. Mendes wrote the script and every moment feels earned, due in large part to Colman and Ward’s commanding screen presence.
Both actors should have significant Oscar buzz, with Ward squaring off with Barry Keoghan for Best Supporting Actor. Coleman’s wine-in-hand manic monologue where Hilary regales Stephen with painful stories from her youth is an engrossing, mesmerizing feat.
Colman, with tears streaming, bounces around the room while delivering her words in rapid-fire madness. She often laughs off the trauma while still visibly disturbed and furious at the atrocities committed by her parents.
The film ends with Stephen heading into an uncertain future and Hilary seemingly in a better place because of her relationship with Stephen (and the removal of Mr. Ellis from the theater). Both Hilary and Stephen are scarred from life, but they’re grateful for the positive things that came from their relationship brighter days ahead.
The film is refreshingly earnest, human, and optimistic despite the exploration of so much pain and cruelty in the world. Mendes has achieved something that will stand the test of time, whether or not the film brings him a second Best Picture statue.
Letter Grade: A