Empire of Light Review – Bold, Explodes with Authenticity

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Empire of Light, from Searchlight Pictures, presents an emotional coming of age drama as the turbulent 1980s reach to the small coastal community in the United Kingdom usually protected from blatant social upheavals and blights.

The film begins with Hillary Small, played by Olivia Colman, beginning her daily duties at the theater. She moves about ensuring the expected patrons will have fresh popcorn, and delicious treats. She appears to be the day manager, although we don't know yet. She prepares her bosses office for his arrival, with simple gestures of, what the audience believes, of repetitious kindness.


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Once the day begins and the remainder of the staff arrive, we meet Norman, the projectionist, played by Toby Jones, the ticket taker, Neil, played by Tom Brooke, and Janine, played by Hanna Onslow, the new guy, Stephen, played by Micheal Ward. As they all gather in the breakroom, the owner named, played by Colin Firth, explains to Hillary he would like to see her in his office.

What follows is surprising as the audience understands Hillary is forced into a sexual relationship. And as the film progresses, we realize she has no options. She can't quit and find a new job and sexual harassment law hadn't arrived in this small coastal UK community.

Movies have, though, and everyone still loves the movies. And our band of misfits, each believing that in some small way they play a part in the experience of the cinema goer, the unsung heroes. And they do.


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Intertwined throughout the moments at the cinema are Hillary's doctor's appointment which begins to paint a fuller picture of her placid personality. We find when she is on her meds she is steady, and many say void of feelings, a calm steady presence, no highs, no lows, simply present.

Her relationship with Stephen, the new guy slowly builds, first through chastisement, as he mocks a patron, then through his natural side. She through happenstance finds the new guy, Stephen in a closed off section of the theater.

By this time, she has stopped taking her meds and her bi-polar begins to manifest; the shared moments of kindness translate differently to her mind. She knows no barriers or boundaries. Her colleagues see the change and as they have been on this ride with her before the gently warn her of the consequences.

The film also highlights race hate, from a slow build of bullies into a mob intent on violence.


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Empire of Light is a highly emotional film about mental illness and Olivia Colman hits the mark each time, with the shocking hyper sexuality, in each of her reactions, the troubling polar mood swings, which are evident throughout from her cleanliness in her home and as she implodes her home is on the same track, worse than disarray, her home is in a shambles.

While Empire of Light is a homage to cinema, and I did enjoy finally understanding why the bubble appeared in film, the drama, a roller coaster ride of bi-polar highs and lows is, for me, too much.

Olivia Colman explodes with authenticity and hits each moment so much so that for those of us who prefer a gentler, steady river ride, it's uncomfortable.

The casting choices of Olivia Coleman and Colin Firth which so were against type, it was unsettling, like the balance was thrown off. We want to see our "stars" riding off into the sunset or conquering obstacles not failing miserably with no hope of redemption. It was disconcerting.

Throughout the film we see two personalities in everyone, the dedicated husband who is also the male slut, each of the cinema workers and their after-work counterparts, while many manage the split, others aren't wired to handle. The redemption of the film comes through the gentleness of Toby Jones' character which also revels the tribute to cinema and the use of film, as we understand the intimacy of the relationship between projectionist and audience, a critical unknown player.

Empire of Light opens in theaters Friday, December 3, 2022. See it.


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Country: UK.

Language: English.

Runtime: 119minutes.

Release Date: Friday, December 9, 2022.

Director: Sam Mendes.

Writer: Sam Mendes.

Producer: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris.

Cast: Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Michael Ward, Hannah Onslow, Tanya Moodie, Tom Brooke, Crystal Clarke, Sarah Stewart.

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