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Telluride Film Review: ‘Empire of Light’ is Sam Mendes’ Heartfelt Tribute to Cinema, Love, and the Magic of the Movie Theater

Searchlight Pictures
Searchlight Pictures

The magic of the movies is real and here at Telluride. Sam MendesEmpire of Light is a warm treat to the special feeling some of us get when we enter a cinema. For me, I literally grew up in movie theaters, my grandfather having been a projectionist. Both times that Mendes’ lovely new film goes in side the booth of the theater at the story’s heart, I was brought to tears. This takes nothing away from the lovely romance at the flick’s core, but the love letter that made me swoon most was to the building where the flickering lights are held. Either way, Mendes has crafted his warmest work to date here, without question.

Empire of Light is clearly Mendes’ most personal film to date. It’s easy to see how the Academy Award-winning director sees the value in the theatrical experience, building out a love story around that entire feeling. While there’s no literal stand-in for him among the cast, you can tell he feels a kinship with everyone involved.

Searchlight Pictures

Set in an English seaside town in the early 1980s and centered on the workers of the Empire theater, this is a story of love in many forms. Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is the duty manager of the theater, which is run by Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), with other employees including the flinty projectionist Norman (Toby Jones). Hilary is a lonely woman, keeping to herself and just going through her days with minimal joy. There’s a passionless affair with her boss, sure, but something is missing. She doesn’t even watch the movies being shown in this palace of cinema.

When Stephen (Micheal Ward) is hired, there’s an instant connection, even if Hilary’s unspoken emotional troubles prevent her from initially wanting to connect. As they bond, the spark of love could be forming, which in turn allows her to come out of her shell. Both are changing, while the world around them does as well, leading to some conflict anyone familiar with the political tensions of England in the 80s will be aware of. Through it all, the Empire stands tall, celebrating the power of film.

Searchlight Pictures

Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward are phenomenal. The former is no surprise, but the latter is a true revelation. Colman gets to play a closed off woman opening up, while Ward gets to, in the words of his character’s mother towards the end, live a little bit of life. Their chemistry together is incredibly warm as well. Their best moments are together. Colin Firth and Toby Jones have small roles, but they’re reliable presences. Jones in particular gets to explain projection at one point and it was deeply moving for someone like yours truly. Supporting players include Tom Brooke, Crystal Clarke, Sara Stewart, and more, but Colman and Ward shine brightest.

Filmmaker Sam Mendes takes sole writing duties here for the first time, in addition to directing, which shows how personal it all is for him. Occasionally, that makes the script a bit more uneven than you’d hope for, but it’s a small quibble. His direction is fluid and full of passion, elevated once again by cinematography from the great Roger Deakins. There’s also strong editing from Lee Smith, as well as an A+ score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Unsurprisingly, since it’s a Mendes project, Empire of Light is nearly perfect on a technical level. Reznor and Ross could be Oscar frontrunners once again, that’s for sure.

Empire of Light is one of the highlights of the Telluride Film Festival. Sam Mendes’ heartfelt tribute to cinema, love, and the magic of the movie theater will almost certainly win you over like it won over this festival crowd. Oscar will definitely interested in this one, but it’s more than just awards bait. It’s a tribute to the power of this medium.

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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