I was looking very forward to “Empire of Light” based on its poster alone! It’s a solid visual of two people quietly celebrating the glory that is the event, the bringing about of fantastic fireworks in the sky. It turns out it’s just 1980 turning into 1981, but it looks like something more unique, as did the movie when I first saw the trailer.
The film starts by introducing us to middle-aged Hilary, played by the fabulous Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Lost Daughter), who’ll no doubt be in award season mentions. Hilary is the manager of a two-screen theater that, back in the day, had four screens, a restaurant, a café’ and a ballroom. Oh, to see it back then. How the people must have flocked to see a movie play in this magnificent building! By the way, take a look at the posters on the walls.
Hilary’s daily routine consists of opening the theater, preparing the popcorn and candy for sale, and ensuring the ushers are in place. Though it’s impressive, this theater isn’t like the big houses of today. The 1980s were when the beautiful cinemas started to be replaced by massive complexes that placed money over comfort and the movie-going experience. In the ’70s and before, they were decorated beautifully and had a curtain that opened before the movie started. The color red was everywhere as it didn’t reflect light as much as other hues.
Nowadays, that isn’t an issue. It’s nice to see it here because it does take you back in time. Being up in the projection booth does, too. We’re shown how the projectionist, Norman (Jones), switches from one reel to the next, carefully doing it at the right time, so he doesn’t disrupt the experience for his audience. He toys with sprockets, belts and complex machinery. A flawless switch means the audience didn’t notice it even happened.
What the people in front of him see is just a little beam of light as he creates the illusion of motion and life.
New and relatively young employee Stephen (Ward) is beyond curious about how everything works, giving Norman a chance to be a big shot through his interest. He never gets to show his skills to anyone! Hilary takes an interest in Stephen, and he does she. Hilary, needing someone in her life to make her whole, already has a thing going with Mr. Ellis (Firth). Mr. Ellis is the theater owner who’s also married but, for some reason, takes an interest in his employee much like Hilary does with Stephen. Why Stephen and Hilary even look at one another is beyond me. Perhaps it’ll make some sense to you.
The theater and the relationships going on within its walls are prominent. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is blissful and the film is well-shot. Sadly, a poorly edited fight scene and how the movie is presented overall, how the characters are introduced and how quickly things move along, make it very difficult for you to care about anything… about the story or its characters. Everything begins to feel unrealistic and forced. It feels as if where the story was going isn’t leading you to where it went. There was a lovely, powerful story about a lonely, broken-down theater and a lonely, mentally broken woman needing one another to come charging back that’s missed amongst a plot line coming in and taking over. It’s a shame, too, because the original narrative would have been something to behold.
Empire of Light
Written and Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones
Run Time: 1h 59m
Genres: Drama, Romance
Distributed by: Searchlight Pictures