For whatever reason, 2022 has been the year of directors reflecting on how they got their start as filmmakers. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that moviegoing and the notion of cinema as we have know it is vanishing right before our eyes and they are trying to preserve something before it’s gone. Since the pandemic, the collective experience of watching a movie in a theater with a group of strangers in the dark, and all that implies, is a rare occurrence for most people. Who has not said, “Wait until it’s streaming and we can watch it at home?”
Getting introspective during two years of isolation, Steven Spielberg explored the roots of his infatuation with movies in the touching “The Fabelmans,” and Alejandro Iñárritu returned to Mexico to question his chosen vocation in the bloated “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.” But the most evocative of the semi-autobiographical films to come out this year is Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light.”
While “Empire of Light” doesn’t deal with filmmaking per se, it does explore the way that movies seep into your consciousness and the alchemy that can happen watching and being near them. The film is set mostly around the idealized theater of Mendes’ youth, the Empire, in a coastal town in the South of England, and the odd group of characters who work there and form a family of sorts. The film isn’t taken strictly taken from his experience but draws on the music and the pop culture of the late ’70s and early ’80s and the uneasy political climate that was important to Mendes in his formative years.
The central character, Hilary (Olivia Colman), who works selling candy and running the theater, is not your usual movie heroine. Middle-aged and struggling to function and keep her tenuous hold on reality despite recurring mental illness, she is drawn from Mendes’s rocky experience with his unstable mother. With her open smile and inherent likability, Colman brilliantly rides the waves of emotions when her demons overtake her life. By turns rebellious and sweet, she is prone to venting at inappropriate times such as when she exposes her bosses’ (Colin Firth) sexual harassment in public at a gala film premiere. Colman’s uncanny ability to swing from lightness to the dark side in a flash, which is probably how it happens in real life, makes her character totally convincing and sympathetic.
Her latest challenge comes into her life when young Stephen (Michael Ward) walks in the door of the Empire to join the staff. As a young black man trying to find his way in the world, he’s as much of an outsider as Hillary, which explains their unlikely attraction. For a while they’re able to soothe and comfort each other.
As the parade of great films of the period come and go from the theater—“All that Jazz,” “Raging Bull,” “Stir Crazy,” “Rocky,” “Gregory’s Girl,” “Chariots of Fire”—the drama of real life plays out. Stephen is captivated by the post-punk sound of The English Beat and the black and white exuberance of The Specials, as Mendes no doubt was. But instead of a filmmaker, Stephen has his sights on becoming an architect if he can get into college and survive the hostile racism of Thatcher’s England.
Mendes attempts to juggle a lot of big themes and bring the threads together. It doesn’t always work but enough does to make the film poignant and glorious to look at. The Empire theatre is an old-fashioned art deco movie palace put together by production designer Mark Tildesley from the skeleton of a former cinema and ballroom exterior attached to a seaside funfair. The murals on the ceiling, sweeping staircases and sculptures on the wall make one long for the days when going to the movies was a memorable event. And the great Roger Deakins’ (“Bladerunner 2049,” “No Country for Old Men”) cinematography captures the nostalgia and faded glory of that time and place.
Mendes’ way into the era and the broken people who populate it goes through the Empire theater and scenes in the projection booth with operator Toby Jones are so visceral you can smell the fumes of the burning carbon arcs that light the projectors and the well-oiled gears that keep them moving. The light pouring out of the machine and splashing the screen with images offers an escape from the toil and trouble of daily life during a rough patch. Movies got Mendes through it and he hopes they will do the same for you.