Empire of Light is a movie about mental health that takes place inside a cinema during the 1980s. The only way it could be more up my alley is if it starred Chevy Chase and had a Katy Perry soundtrack. Director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) goes intimate for this one, telling a slice-of-life story about a troubled woman trying to find her footing in life. That may not be enough for viewers seeking high drama, but for me, the contrast between the optimism of movies and the pessimistic world view of the main character was enticing.
Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a secondary manager at the Empire cinema, located in a coastal town in England. She has become entangled in a pseudo-affair with her married boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), that entails him calling her into his office whenever he wants to be serviced sexually. She gets nothing in return. New employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) proves to be a bright spot in Hilary's life. They form an unlikely connection after sneaking into an unused part of the theater together and talking. The friendship goes to unexpected places, for them and us.
From there, Empire of Light tracks how Hilary's life, much like her mood, goes up and down. She's got mental health issues, which flare up significantly at the most inconvenient time possible, as the theater is hosting the premiere of Chariots of Fire. Stephen tries to help in the wake of her struggles, and there's a nice sense of honesty in how the film shows him realizing that all he can do is offer support, then similarly realizing that support goes much further than he initially thinks.
Wrapped inside the plot is a captivating idea. It becomes an ironic point that Hilary works in a movie theater, yet never watches movies. Stephen is constantly encouraging her to venture into the auditorium to view whatever is showing. Mendes seems to be speaking to the inspirational quality of cinema. Films give us hope. They make us believe our troubles can be solved with perseverance, just as the troubles of their protagonists are. As Nicole Kidman would say, we go to theaters to be “not just entertained, but somehow reborn.” Hilary lacks that in her life. She doesn't have anything to make her feel like life can be okay until Stephen shows her a path.
Olivia Colman gives the latest in a string of exceptional performances here, playing Hilary's mental health struggles realistically. (Ellis calls her schizophrenic, but bipolar looks more likely.) She conveys the loneliness and melancholy her character experiences in heartbreaking fashion. Colman's scenes with Ward are terrific, as the stars create a dynamic between Hilary and Stephen that makes an unlikely friendship feel true. Ward also excels in detours the plot takes into examining racial issues of the time. Stephen is fully aware of the rising skinhead movement and determined to stand firm against it. Firth, meanwhile, has a smaller role than usual. Nevertheless, he turns Ellis into an abuser of power who doesn't come off as a cheap caricature.
Elegantly photographed by cinematographer Roger Deakins and boasting superb production design, Empire of Light establishes the cinema Hilary works in as a character in its own right. The movie takes time to portray many of the details of working in a theater, from dealing with rude customers to changing marquees. That infuses it with a lived-in quality that helps the main story pop. Mendes combines the power of film with a tale of personal unhappiness to illustrate a key point: life is somehow not at all like the movies and exactly like the movies simultaneously. Empire of Light is a beautiful testament to the power of images on a screen that offer happy endings and give us an ideal to pursue in trying to make our lives a little happier.
out of four
Empire of Light is rated R for sexual content, language, and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.