Photo: ‘Empire of Light’
‘Empire of Light’ is a new movie written and directed by Sam Mendes. Based on an entirely original script, it follows Cinema manager Hilary (played by a tragic and often terrifying Olivia Coleman) as she navigates severe depression, a budding romance between her and her new employee (an affectionate Michael Ward), and battles against both internal and external threats to her existence. There’s plenty to love about this movie about movies. For instance, Sam Mendes is at it again and has directed this film communicating the story’s grandeur in mind: his shots highlight every extreme.
From the temporary beauties that act as a respite in Hilary’s life (fireworks above a cityscape, a wide open ocean ready to be appreciated) to the lows of her life that she is forced to deal with on a frequent if not daily basis (breaking down in her dimly lit living room, a row of furious people banging on the Cinema glass in hopes of destroying the Empire Theater), his shot composition covers it all. Aiding in this endeavor is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins has experience in fleshing out grandiose stories with big ideas through his work, which he fully leans into here. There’s also a sense of comfortability that Deakins seems to have when choosing how the shots will look, most likely because he’s worked with Sam Mendes before.
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If my description of the plot didn’t get it across well enough, the weightiness of the situation the movie chooses to tell is immense. A majority of the characters in the movie are struggling with big wistful emotions and feelings of inadequacy on an existential level. It’s hard to watch others deal with these predicaments. The lessons learned by the characters are brought to life by the acting, the inherent drama in the story, and Sam Mendes’ experience telling similar journeys. These things illuminate just how a story of seemingly small proportions actually involves many larger-than-life struggles that are just beneath the surface.
The Acting Brings Meaning to the Story
Hilary spends most days, in her own words, feeling numb. After a stay at a mental institution, she feels lost, wandering throughout her life wondering if she can carry forward. Olivia Coleman shows this frustration and confusion perfectly, encapsulating all the different shades of despair. Sometimes it manifests as not being able to do much of anything. There are scenes where she sits alone by herself, quiet and unphased by life around her. Other times, she’s furious, screaming at her friends about her situation. Her co-lead, Michael Ward, also deserves plenty of praise. He gives a stunning performance as new employee Stephen. Without spoiling too much, this character has a different set of problems that lead to similar feelings. Michael imbues this character with a mixture of kindness and sincerity. The love story of these two, be it somewhat complicated by their job statuses, is also very moving.
Sam Mendes has plenty of experience directing and writing about people going through enormous struggles. The soldiers he wrote about in ‘1917’ went through a harrowing journey. While Mendes may have placed more of an emphasis on the external part of the struggle in his WW1 narrative, he also focuses on the internal part of the struggle (dealing with the loss of loved ones, and the stress of completing the mission). The movie, combined with choices he made in some of his other prior movies (his choice to add a new layer to James Bond’s friendship with M in ‘Skyfall’) prepared him for writing characters with deep psychological stress and existential torment, something his characters in ‘Empire of Light’ are unfortunately full of and need help overcoming. Hilary is in existential pain, and there’s no easy fix for that.
The Inherent Drama in the Story
The drama in this story is deceiving. On one hand, it seems like most of the main characters’ lives are pretty mundane. Employees of the Empire usually go to their job, show movies, and go home. The lack of external things going on forces the characters to reflect deeply on the state of their life, causing more internal troubles to emerge.
However, the story is obviously more than just about the low points of these people. Mendes’ story weaves bits of hope into their lives as well. Some of the characters are incredibly immersed in Cinema itself, and when one describes the process behind what it takes to create a movie, it’s treated by Mendes as a much-needed source of light and positivity. Movies are creative interpretations of life and the lessons we need to learn in life in order to love ourselves better and the people around us better. Enjoying them can be life-affirming and transformational.
Sam Mendes’ Writing Chops – ‘Empire of Light’
The above brings me to my final point. The heavy messaging in ‘Empire of Light’ is deeply impactful. Every one of us struggles internally with where we’re at in life, with whether we’re enough or not, with whether we’re doing enough for ourselves or for others. However, as Cinema teaches Hilary and Stephen, and others by the end of the movie, actively trying to live a life (any life) is worthwhile.
There’s a reason why Mendes is able to make this message ring so true: he’s had a lot of experience writing stories that involve learning that affirmation of life is immeasurably valuable. Once again, ‘1917’ is worth noting as an example. Lance Corporal Schofield and Lance Corporal Blake are on a mission to deliver a message to stop infantrymen from launching a needless attack in hopes of sparing their lives. They both encounter incredible hardship throughout their arduous journey. However, none of this stops them from delivering the letter. Schofield and Blake never get dissuaded or demoralized into retreating. They know that if their message can save even one life, it’s worth making it to where they need to go.
‘Empire of Light’ is a journey full of emotional ups and downs. It shows characters demoralized, and it shows how these demoralized characters dig themselves out, if briefly, to find solace in something sincere. Stressing this message can make it feel like the perfect watch for the Holidays, as this time of year is all about joy and affirmation of each other’s lives. Sam Mendes directs this story perfectly, and Roger Deakins elevates the direction through the look and feel of his cinematography. If a person loves films and finding community through film, they will absolutely love this movie. ‘Empire of Light’ is currently in select theaters, but will be given a full release on December 15th.
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes
Actors: Olivia Coleman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Crystal Clarke
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
By Zachary DePiore
Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.
I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV, media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.”
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