Empire of Light

Made by British film and stage director, producer, and screenwriter Sir Sam Mendes, Empire of Light is set in the English seaside town of Margate of 1980-81 (where I grew up) in a two-screen cinema. Regular life for duty manager Hilary (Olivia Colman), the box-office and concession staff, and the projectionist is gradually changed after handsome, young black man, Stephen (Micheal Ward), is hired by the manager (Colin Firth) to be a ticket taker.

Hilary struggles with bipolar disorder, for which she is taking lithium, and life is made more difficult by her married boss pressuring her into frequent sex in his office. But Stephen gives her hope and gradually a romance develops between them. Unfortunately, the early-Eighties not only brought films like Being There and blacks-and-whites-together Two-tone music (both featured in this film), but also the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher’s government and their new racially biased laws.

Together the two lovers must face the threat of skinhead violence and difficulties of the mixed-race relationship, exacerbated by Hilary going off her meds. But maybe just by “being there,” Stephen can help Hilary and the rest of their cinematic community heal. After all, “Life is a state of mind.” Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ swoony score of electronic-aided traditional instruments fills all channels, with piano coming from the front and violins in surrounds, which are otherwise only used for very subtle beachside atmospherics of gulls, wave-slapped docks, and New Year’s fireworks exploding. Repetitive blows in the breaking down of Hilary’s door by the police are loud, very bassy, and threatening. The soundtrack also includes occasional rock classics still popular at the time, like Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Playing on a record player, it’s nice, but suddenly surging out into the room from all sides, it’s magical.

As with later tracks by The Specials, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell, it all sounds wonderfully full, with dialogue always clear and resonant. The only extra is a featurette in which Mendes talks about why he wrote the script, his love of cinema, and finding the perfect location for the Dreamland movie theater in Margate. “I like to watch.”

STUDIO: Disney and 20th Century Studios, 2022
AUDIO FORMAT: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
LENGTH: 119 mins., R
DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
STARRING: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie

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Kaysee23's picture

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