REVIEW: Empire of Light, BFI London Film Festival

Olivia Colman delivers a raw, powerhouse performance in this tender film that never shies away from the brutality and reality of the racism in the 1980’s.

While many have described this latest film directed by Sam Mendes (who also wrote the screenplay) as a love letter to cinema and the film industry – there is certainly much more about this film than meets the eye. It is more than a love story between two characters both vulnerable in different ways that captures important topics such as mental health and of racism – by adding these extra layers, this is a really detailed film that I have a feeling no matter how many times you watch it, you come away seeing it in a completely different light.

The story begins with cinema manager Hilary going through her usual routine of opening her local cinema – it is clear from early on she is lonely and vulnerable but is thoroughly dedicated to her job which seems to be her one lifeline – excepting her affair with a married man which seems toxic and unfeeling on both sides. Things begin to look up for her with the arrival of a new ticket seller Stephen, who has to cope with daily reality of racism in 1980’s Britain so is equally vulnerable in his own way. But they have an instant connection which is soon threatened as Hilary’s sadness and illness comes creeping back to the surface. There are so many moments that are heartbreaking to watch but feel very much grounded in reality and adds sincerity to their relationship.

Through his film, Sam Mendes manages to layer many different aspects of the story effectively – ensuring that they are all tied up nicely with impact. I love the way in which the staff of the cinema including Mr Ellis (Colin Firth), projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and assistants Neil (Tom Brooke) and Janine (Hannah Onslow) feel like a real family and help on some level to take Hilary out of her shell – but this closeness can be transformed in a second as seen in one particular brutal scene in which a violent act takes place and leaves Stephen in hospital. It is moments like this that Mendes makes clear – that film can be an escapism from reality briefly but it can never truly brush away the brutality of the world.

However, this being said the moments in which focus on the love of cinema, with many references to films that were shown at the time all feel so well placed to break up the tension between Hilary and Stephen that builds to a particularly heartbreaking scene in her flat and the audience gets to understand a little bit as to why she is the way she is. But it feels as though we don’t get to understand the characters as deeply as we should – despite the excellent performances from the cast.

Visually, this film is a real treat to look at as well – thanks to the glamorous way in which Roger Deakins has captured film. In particular, the scene in which a special regional premiere of Chariots of Fire takes place, has a real sense of glamour of theatricality and richness about it that is mesmerising to witness, while the bleaker and brutal moments are also wonderfully drained of colour but make a strong impact.

Olivia Colman once again proves just what an extraordinary actress she is. As Hilary, she has to capture a wide variety of emotions as Hilary’s increasing vulnerability comes to the surface. It is a heartbreaking, charming and engaging performance to watch develop and change as the story twists and turns. She is is also well matched with Michael Ward, who delivers a calm and open performance as Stephen – together their chemistry is completely natural and heartfelt, with the connection between the two characters never in doubt.

A very humane film, this is a story that has plenty to offer in terms of drama and genuine emotion that keeps the audience enthralled from start to finish.

By Emma Clarendon

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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