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Film Review: Empire of Light is a rich and quiet delight

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT.
Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT.

British filmmaker Sam Mendes has directed movies as distinguished as Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the Oscar-winning drama of sexual frustration, “American Beauty,” and two films starring Daniel Craig as James Bonds.

KUNC’s film critic and CU Denver film professor Howie Movshovitz says that Mendes’ latest work, “Empire of Light”, is as rich as his earlier movies but quieter.
It’s the winter of 1982. Light snow falls on an unnamed town on the coast of England.

The Empire Cinema features American pictures, “The Blues Brothers” and “All that Jazz.” A woman enters the big glass doors to open up. She’s Hilary (Olivia Colman) and she’s worked at the Empire for years.

She turns on lights and walks through both spacious houses to make sure they’re ready for the day’s programs and to let us into this world.

The Empire Cinema is old enough to have an actual ticket booth. Writer/director Sam Mendes’ film, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography, is in love with the place — long takes with an unmoving camera makes it feel sacred, and Hilary is a lonely figure in these big and out-of-date spaces.

Not many people come to this beach town cinema — at least in the winter — but probably because the Empire is a grand-looking place, it’s been chosen to host the area premiere of the British film “Chariots of Fire.”

It’s a big deal — the Empire is packed for the show, and something about the event seems to shake loose feelings and behaviors that have grown stagnant.

A Black man joins the eccentric theater crew, which is unusual for a British beach town in 1981. Hilary is a generation older than Stephen (Micheal Ward), but they have an affair and share a stiffly tender moment on the theater’s roof on New Year’s Eve as Hilary recites a sad poem.

Ring out, wild bells to the wild sky

The flying cloud and the frosty light,

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out wild bells, and let him die.

“Empire of Light” recalls British movies of the late 19502 and early ‘60s in its respect for characters of no great social status. But unlike, for instance, “Room at the Top” or the “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” “Empire of Light” doesn’t indict the whole of British society.

It looks into its characters apart from their social roles to see who they are.

And who they are combines filmmaker Sam Mendes’ concern for the struggles of human beings and his acute awareness that movies are insubstantial illusions projected on screens.

Stephen has come to England from the Caribbean. He lives with his mother and from time to time, he’s harassed and beaten on the streets by white thugs. He dreams of going to college and becoming an architect.

Hilary encourages Stephen, but she has different demons to combat. She’s middle-aged; she feels defeated, and she’s diagnosed as schizophrenic, so when she’s overwhelmed, she’s sent away.

And in one understated but astonishing sequence, “Empire of Light” throws everything in ambiguity.

The projectionist, played by Toby Jones, — like many actual movie projectionists — is a grumpy man who lets no one into this booth. But he invites Stephen in, shows him the projectors and explains how movies really only give the illusion of motion, the illusion of life.

It’s the beautiful image of the paradox of the movies. Stories and characters from films are real to us, at least in our imagination. You can talk about what Hilary or Stephen do or think or feel, as if they were human beings.

They get into our consciousness and conversation.

Michael Corleone of “The Godfather” is as real to people as any actual person they’ve never met. But as the projectionist explains to Stephen, movies are even more of an illusion than many people we know.

The screen is actually black much of the time; our brains put separate still pictures together so that we think we see motion — but most of a film really takes place inside the heads of the initial viewers. Not on the screen.

Yet, Empire of Light makes us worry about whether these imaginary people will make out okay.

Happily, it’s a kind film.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.