Empire of Light
Writer-director Sam Mendes’s latest offering is a period drama about the staff of a English resort town’s movie house with themes including mental illness and the growing racial violence of the time, told within a sweet background of cinematic nostalgia. Its strengths include its superb cinematography, a delicate score, and a fine ensemble cast led by Olivia Colman, a virtual sure-bet for an Oscar nomination. It is a worthy follow-up to Mendes’ last picture from 2019, “1917 ” (the film, released in cinemas December 9, is rated “R” and runs 115 minutes).
The plot turns around Hilary (Colman), the dour manager of the Empire Cinema, a traditional Art Deco house in a seaside town in the south of England which has seen better days but purrs along showing a mix of reruns and first runs during early 1980’s. Hilary is lonely, going through the motions at her job, and starved for affection. She occasionally goes to dance classes, has dutiful sex with her married boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), and leads a lifeless routine. We see her brighten for a chance at love when a new Black employee, the handsome Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the staff, and she looks for ways to get close to him. The Empire crew members include the projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), the young usher Janine (Hannah Onslow) and the veteran usher Neil (Tom Brooke)
Stephen, a decent lad, warms to Hilary but doesn’t go too far as she mentors him about the work and shows him around town. He later finds companionship with the sweet Ruby (Crystal Clarke). Ellis, seeking to put his house on the map, dreams of a sprightly restoration and a splashy premiere with the 1981 hit “Chariots of Fire,” with local celebrities attending.
When the premiere arrives, Hilary begins to lose it (her troubled mental state has been hinted at earlier). The film’s resolution is gently told.
“Empire of Light” is dominated by Colman, currently on a string of fine performances beginning with “The Favourite” from 2018. Here she does unfussy modesty to perfection but also can explode when necessary. Young Ward is a cool, thoughtful customer who shows real delicacy in his relationship with Hilary. Toby Jones adds a grace note as a passionate film fan, and the usually cool Firth is here an aging swine.
Mendes paints the town carefully, its look and spaces clearly defined, especially the theater itself, with its spiffy front and lobby created by production designer Mark Tildesley, while the veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins lights everything with clarity and class. This is a nostalgia trip that merits a visit.
The one-liner—“Do we stay or do we go?” could be a crude set-up for the absorbing new film by writer-director Sarah Polley. A stark but compelling drama set in 2010, it is based on a contemporary incident that happened in a religious community. It features eight women from an isolated Mennonite colony (location not specified) grappling to reconcile their harsh reality with their abiding faith after it is revealed that multiple men from their isolated colony have drugged and raped the community’s women at night for years.
Eight of their number gather in the hayloft of a barn to argue about what to do about this realization. An odd setting for a movie drama, perhaps, but made compelling (mostly) by an octet of fine actors (the film is rated “PG-13,” runs 144 minutes, and arrives in DC-area cinemas in early January).
The setting opens briskly but with little background information. It is not clear what people in the colony do for a living, although it appears to be farming. The exact nature of the abuses is never specified. What is learned is what the women discuss for the two-hour run time. Viewers will see the colony’s inhabitants in what seems a timeless setting—with the women wearing garb out of “Witness” (1986)—modestly dressed but with searing material to discuss. The photography is restrained, with a muted color scheme (shot by Luc Montpellier) just this side of high-contrast black-and white.
Chief protagonists include a fine Greek chorus of women actors: Rooney Mara as Ona, torn about the choices they must face, Claire Foy as Salome, a vociferous voice against the criminal menfolk, Jesse Buckley as Mariche, almost as outspoken but willing to listen to arguments, and Judith Ivey as Agata, who provides historical perspective and the presence of an elderly Catholic nun. The only significant male role is August (Ben Wishaw), the shy school teacher who has agreed to take notes of the session.
As stated above, Polley’s script reveals little information about the scandal that has riven the community; you piece it together from the women’s exchange. The setting of their talk fest is narrow, even a little claustrophobic. The to-and-fro of the debate is intense and gripping (giving each actress a chance to shine), yet, also somewhat repetitive. Will they or won’t they vote to leave the colony…?
Polley comes with a long film-making pedigree in her native Canada. She began acting as a child and her breakthrough role came in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), playing a teenage survivor of a bus crash, and in the TV series “Slings and Arrows” (2004-2006). Among the dozens of feature films she appeared in through 2010 (when she turned to directing), some of the most prominent included “Guinevere” (1998), “Go” (1999), and “My Life Without Me” (20003).
Her directing debut was “Away from Her” (2006), a sympathetic study of a woman suffering with dementia, “Take This Waltz” (2010), a delicate film about a love triangle, and “Stories We Tell” (2012), a revealing documentary about her own family’s past. This makes “Women Talking” her first feature in ten years, and one of her best. At age 43, we can only hope that Polley has years, if not decades, of work ahead of her.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.