“Empire of Light” comes with an amazing performance from Olivia Coleman
You cannot go wrong with a cast led by Olivia Coleman. In the last few years, she’s proven herself to be unstoppable, to be a force that no one can doubt. Her name alone on the cast of Empire of Light was enough to get me through the cinema doors. But as the film continued to unfold in front of me, it became clear that I had no idea what I was in for.
Empire of Light follows the story of Hilary Small (Coleman), the duty manager of a seaside cinema. As she starts a relationship with a new employee in this small England town, her mental health struggles and her past begin to unravel.
Directed by Sam Mendes (1917, Revolutionary Road), the cast includes Coleman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Hones, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Tanya Moodie, Tom Brooke and Sara Steward.
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Coleman is, as expected, amazing in the role. Hilary is depressed but dedicated to her place in life. She willingly and eagerly sells snacks at the concession stand, rips tickets, and cleans up after messy movie-goers. Everything looks above ground, with the rest of the staff sharing laughs before the doors to the fictional Empire cinema house opens. But within the first few minutes, things get alarmingly real and awkward.
Mr. Ellis (Firth) invites Hilary to his office under the guise of work. She is, after all, the deputy manager. But then comes the first unexpected thing; I never thought I would hear Firth say, “Your arse feels so good in my hands,” or ask his subordinate for a blowjob.
We see Hilary visit her doctor; it seems she’s under treatment for a mysterious mental breakdown from the year before. But when the Empire hires a new employee, Stephen (Ward), Hilary seems to be getting better. And then comes the other unexpected thing: Olivia Coleman pressed up against the wall, having sex with her subordinate. She’s happy, fulfilled and completely entranced with Stephen—that is, until she quickly reverts to her old ways.
There are so many things that Empire of Light does beautifully. The characters and their stories unfold naturally. We see Hilary struggle with seeing her “boyfriend,” Mr. Ellis, in public with his wife—and then bear witness to Hilary’s very public declaration that someone else’s husband has, indeed, been fucking her. We see every minute detail of the age and race discrimination that Hilary and Stephen face with their relationship, as well as Stephen’s own battle with what it meant to be black in 1980s England.
But most of all, we see Hilary try to put her life together and succeed—if only for a brief moment. We see her slow decline, reaching its height in a psychotic and public breakdown during the Empire’s biggest night; a premiere for Chariots of Fire that everyone who is anyone is attending. Simply put: Coleman is a master chameleon. Her smile is so genuine, but so are her subtle and flamboyant cries. As Empire of Light continues rolling, we see her transform from quiet and subdued Hilary to a Hilary that gives zero fucks about who or what she will demolish. And in the end, we see a Hilary who has accepted defeat and said goodbye to the hope of love.
And through it all, we see how cinema—when done right—can heal a soul. It doesn’t matter if you’re making it, filming it, acting in it or are one of the people that make the cinema experience work; it’s a comfort for anyone that dares welcome it in.
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From start to finish Empire of Light is bravely human. In its 119-minute run, we as an audience fall victim to love, discrimination, rejection and the bitter realization that not all stories end happily.
“Empire of Light” is exclusively showing in Ayala Malls cinemas.
Art Macky Arquilla