Empire of Light: Dark Room, Light Stories

Sometimes, in the midst of the trials around you, you need to hear a new story in order to remember what could be.

Set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, Empire of Light tells the story of Hillary (Olivia Colman), the cinema manager of the Empire Theatre. Despite struggling with mental health issues and engaged in an affair with her boss, Hilary still loves her job and the rest of her team. Things begin to change for her though when Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the staff. As the two begin to work together, there is an instant connection between them. Eventually, they both find a sense of belonging with one another and Hilary discovers a new sense of confidence within her. But can they continue their relationship in the midst of the challenges around them?

Colin Firth and Olivia Colman in EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ? 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Directed by Sam Mendes, Light is an endearing film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Although the film takes place over forty years ago, Mendes chooses to use the film to explore the tension between nostalgia and modern day struggles such as mental health, racial tensions and toxic masculinity. In other words, this is a film that seems to yearns for the ?good ole days? yet also reminds us that they weren?t necessarily that ?good? in the first place. 

What?s more, given the pedigree of its cast, it should be no surprise that performances are fairly solid across the board. Toby Jones and Colin Firth bring their own unique likeable qualities to the role (which Firth, in particular, balances out with a sense of villainy). Given her character?s personal issues, Colman?s performance goes dark in moments yet she also brings a youthful bounce to the role. (Honestly, I can?t think of the last time I?ve seen her play a character with such ease.) Even so, the standout of the film is relative newcomer Ward who plays his character with strength and charisma. As Stephen, Ward becomes an example of courage as he stands up against racial discrimination but also fuels the role with a sense of play that makes him memorable.

Colin Firth and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ? 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Central to the film though lies the cinema itself. 

In some ways, it?s interesting that Empire was released so closely on the heels of Spielberg?s The Fabelmansas both projects speak about the primal need to share stories on the big screen. Simply due to the release schedule, it?s unavoidable that the films will be held up against one another. However, whereas Spielberg?s film focuses on his passion to tell stories, Mendes? film emphasizes the power that those stories have on others. (Although, it?s also worth noting that both films also come out at time when the theatrical experience has been threatened by at-home streaming as well.) 

To the staff of the theatre, the Empire is a place of great importance, even if attendance has dwindled. In the midst of the chaos, the theatre (mostly) becomes a refuge for those that the larger culture chooses to cast aside. For its patrons and staff, the Empire is a place of almost religious significance. To them, the Empire stands tall as the last great cathedral where stories of hope are shared. (Note the films that Mendes highlights on the marquee, as they often foreshadow themes and events to come in the next segment.) Through its sharing of stories, it becomes both a place of escape and a place of new life for those who attend. 

In short, it?s meant to be a place of safety.

Toby Jones and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ? 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Now, without giving anything away, the Empire isn?t always such a bastion of purity. Toxicity and violence threaten its quiet sanctuary as much as any other cultural icon, whether religious or otherwise. Nevertheless, the staff of the Empire still believe that this remains a place worth preserving. Personal struggles are dealt with and messes are cleaned up in the interest of maintaining their walls as a place of refuge. It isn?t perfect? but it remains worth fighting for. 

They need it. And they believe others need it as well.

With this in mind, although not Mendes? best work, Empire of Light remains a heartwarming and optimistic piece that?s worth the price of admission. This is a film that wants the viewer to appreciate the magic of the big screen, not only for it?s fun and entertainment, but also for its ability to share stories of hope during dark times. Empire recognizes that, when people find themselves confronted with evil, they need to be reminded of something better.

They need to be invited to see the Light once again.

Empire of Light is now available in theatres.

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