Hilary is in charge of a cinema in an English seaside town and tries to preserve her fragile sanity. Stephen is a new employee who longs to leave this small provincial town where every day can quickly turn into an ordeal. By getting closer to each other, they will learn to heal their wounds through music, cinema and the feeling of belonging to a group…
After two parts of James Bond (Sky Fall and Spectre) and a sequence-shot war film (1917), Sam Mendes returns to a more intimate sphere with empire of light, whose plot he places in his native lands. The filmmaker reunites with his longtime collaborators, including the director of photography Roger Deakins (with whom he is collaborating for the fifth time), production designer Mark Tildesley and costume designer Alexandra Byrnebut also the musical supervisor Randall Poster and the composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Rosswho sign the original soundtrack of the film.
The exposition sequence introduces us to Hilary in her morning routine. First arrival, the 50-year-old breathes new life into the cinema she manages in this British seaside town. From lighting to heating, through an inspection of the premises, the employee is conscientious before raising the curtain to welcome the first customers. She is the one who runs the shop, although she does not own the establishment. When a new recruit is hired, she is responsible for briefing him and presenting him with the premises, giving him some strict functional instructions. The young man, Stephen, shows real curiosity for the building, which we feel clearly no longer has its former splendor, even going so far as to want to discover the upper floor, now left to abandonment due to lack of attendance.
His arrival in the staff will revive a gloomy daily life for Hilary, who is now under treatment following a severe depression a few months earlier. Solitary, she sometimes yields to the advances of a mediocre boss who takes advantage of her weakness. However, her exchanges with Stephen, who shows himself to be sincere in his interest in her, will revive a certain spontaneity in her and restore her faith in herself, resuscitate her self-esteem. The start of an exciting new chapter?
Because the jovial Stephen looks at her with a new, curious and benevolent eye, becoming the spark to rekindle the flame of life that has been dormant in Hilary for too long. From her life on lithium, where she was content with a routine schedule without real deviations, she will rediscover the little pleasures and gradually open her heart. Thanks to a New Year’s fireworks display, care given to an injured pigeon and a few shared confidences, the rapprochement takes place. Hilary seems to find a certain momentum in her daily life at the Empire Cinema, and even offers herself a trip to the sea in her company. But outside the beautiful walls of the enclosure, Hilary’s mental illness tends to manifest itself again and this escapade reveals her past wounds and her illness, which was only asleep. She struggles with her own troubled mind to find a way to (re)connect, while Stephen tries to find his way. Rejected by academia, he finds himself at a crossroads and strives to accomplish himself despite what seems forbidden to him. The racial politics of Margaret Thatcher, the racism of Enoch Powell and the British National Front, the Brixton and Toxteth riots are all historical references employed by Mendes to weave a troubled social backdrop, outside the timeless bubble. what seems to be the cinema where they work.
empire of light unfolds a classic narrative that manages to carry us delicately into its double story of rebirth, where shine Olivia Colman and Michael Ward. Sam Mendes pays homage to the ties that unite us – music, films and these heartfelt families that we recompose – and which allow us to overcome hardships. Finally, his melodrama of great elegance leaves us with our hearts in our eyes in its utterly beautiful finale. This last segment, which is sure to make the hearts of lovers of the seventh art beat faster, stands out as a new and magnificent declaration of love to the Cinema, art and place, and its cathartic and restorative virtues. The cinema, as a refuge from the evils of existence and society. A beam of light that shines in the dark, reflecting the world and healing tormented souls.
March 1, 2023 – Sam Mendeswith Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Tom Brooke
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EMPIRE OF LIGHT – Review of the film by Sam Mendes with Olivia Colman