HomeNewsSam Mendes' ode to the consoling power of cinema

    Sam Mendes’ ode to the consoling power of cinema

    The whole team of the Empire movie theater, in Sam Mendes'


    British director Sam Mendes’ elegant eclecticism has led him from a vitriolic chronicle of the American Way of Life (American Beauty1999, his most cutting film to date) to a filmic performance of a war film (1917in 2020), through two James Bond films (Sky Fall and 007 Specter) and a contrasting diptych on the fateful wear and tear of married life (Revolutionary Roadin 2008, and Away We Go, in 2009). Like many other directors facing a struggling cinema industry and an awareness of their own dwindling years, Mendes’ new film Empire of Light – shot during the Covid-19 crisis – takes him back to his own youth in late-1970s England, in a story which – for the first time – he wrote himself.

    The Empire, a once majestic but now decrepit movie theater, has seen better days. This red and gold Art Deco theater with its ballroom, situated in a typical English seaside town, is the setting for this film, in which two misfits – theater staff – are the protagonists. Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a middle-aged single woman, taking prescription lithium to stabilize her mental health. She manages a small team at the cinema, when she’s not having a quickie with her boss (Colin Firth). He is constantly calling her into his office for reasons which fool no-one.

    Young Stephen (Michael Ward) is the new kid on the block, a black student whose university career is thwarted by his skin color and who is struggling with the times: ultra-liberal Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, the surge of the British National Front and skinhead movements, and the Brixton riots.

    old fashioned show

    Just like in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur (2011) – the film starring Peter Mullan which brought Olivia Colman to fame – Empire of Light once again casts her in a role in which she plays one of a pair of characters broken by her life, looking for a way out of their suffering by coming together. With this highly original and unlikely duo, Sam Mendes embellishes their brief encounter with a whole string of twists and turns, combining humor with melodrama.

    Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Michael Ward, from behind) in Sam Mendes'

    At the cinema itself, there is great excitement at it being chosen for the regional premiere of Chariots of Fire (nineteen eighty one) and Ellis – the frustrated boss, male chauvinist and depressed husband – has high hopes that he will revive his theater. He tries, in vain, to keep Hilary away, as she is in the midst of a mental breakdown and seeks revenge. More importantly, it is the staff team that brings the cinema to life, like a small family safe in their home, sheltered from the sound and fury of the world outside.

    Sam Mendes embellishes a whole string of twists and turns, combining humor with melodrama.

    This ode to the movie theater – to its misfortunes and friendships which go hand in hand, to its radiating warmth, to its resurrected splendor – offers up an example of a spectacle that one might call old-fashioned today – in this “marvelized” era – with its taste for careful restoration, well-conducted dialogue, and impeccable acting. Placing the human touch at its core – where the weak band together to face the violence of the era – and a kind of softness that envelops us like the velvet of the emerald green seats. All this makes Empire of Light a film that – while it won’t break the box office – will reinforce the idea that cinema, once a powerhouse of bringing crowds together, has arguably always been somewhere that offers us a reassuring shelter from the world – which is secretly why we like going there.

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    Anglo-American film by Sam Mendes. With Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Toby Jones and Colin Firth (1:59).

    Translation of an original article published in English on; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.

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