From start to finish, Empire of Light is an exquisite film. Set in the early 1980's in a beautiful, vintage cinema in a quaint English seaside town, the film explores the complexities of the lives of those who work at the movie theater. While it's certainly an ensemble film, Olivia Colman's brilliant performance coupled with Micheal Ward's nuanced portrayal of her unexpected leading man allows both to shine in extraordinary ways rarely seen in contemporary films. Their performances are masterful individually, yet equally powerful as a poetic duet of two seemingly different people impacted by the collision of lives. Featuring a sensational supporting cast that includes standout performances by Toby Jones, Hannah Onslow, and Tom Brooke, Mendes creates a bittersweet extended family out of his characters all connected by place, something anyone who has worked in a similar public-serving job can relate to.
At it's core, Empire of Light is a fascinating and sometime brutal tale about the fragility of human emotions. What is the breaking point of a character? What is their moment of redemption? Their darkest place? Their point of no return?
Writer and director Sam Mendes is clever with his artistry, knowing when to allow poignancy to occur while balancing it with the harsh realities of life - at least those that exist within this cinematic world. It is this sometimes heartbreaking juxtaposition that makes the film the haunting viewing experience it is. Mendes achieves this within the duality of the main location of the film: the cinema. While the lobby and the two screening rooms are gorgeous to look at, there are two hidden screening rooms that the public never sees. Forgotten and appropriately referred to as the pigeon coop, some of the film's most tender moments occur against this backdrop of hidden decay, reminding the audience that what's beyond the surface can be far more significant and compelling. All of this is achingly underscored by a stunning score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Yet it is Colman's performance that fuels this fierce engine. Through her, Mendes gives us a flawed character who's mental break speaks to the despair of vulnerability and the beauty of rebirth. To her role, Colman brings an intensity and ache that is unforgettable. Both the film and Colman's portrayal will take your breath away.
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