Olivia Colman Is Mesmerizing In Sam Mendes’ ‘Empire Of Light’

As a film critic, most of the times you leave the theater after seeing a movie, there’s a publicist waiting at the exit, prepared to buttonhole you with the standard query: “So, what did you think??”

For most of the critics I know (and I try not to associate with many), this is unquestionably the least favorite part of the process. Our inability to be satisfied with a succinct answer to “what did you think” is how a lot of us got into writing criticism in the first place. Not to mention that for a lot of writers, we don’t really know what we think until we try to write it.

I digress, but a lot of the time, if you give a negative answer to “what did you think,” the follow-up question is “well, what about the performances?”

This is a question that I assume only makes sense in the context of For Your Consideration campaigns, but it’s always struck me as weird. Like, did the actors do a good job bringing to life the uncompelling story? What would “good” even mean in that context? Okay, so you didn’t like the house, but what about the bricks?

Nine times out of 10, my natural response, whether I say it out loud or not, is something like who cares? Yet every once in while, there actually is an actor who seems capable of transcending the material around them, of being a compelling story themselves even within something less than that. One of those, and maybe chief among them, is Olivia Colman.

That’s not to say that her latest movie, Empire Of Light, from director Sam Mendes, is bad, or that she’s good in spite of it. As someone who rarely wholeheartedly loves Sam Mendes movies (with the benefit of hindsight, my favorite movie of his might be… Jarhead? That can’t be right…), Empire Of Light might be his best yet. It’s just that Olivia Colman is so good in it that opening with anything else feels like ignoring the elephant in the room.

In Empire Of Light, Sam Mendes does what so many filmmakers have been doing recently (and to some extent probably always): write about his own formative years. The story is set in coastal England in the late seventies and early eighties, a time of two-tone ska and the rise of the National Front, those heady days when Mendes himself was coming of age. And while it certainly has a whiff of Ladybird or The Fabelmans about it (insert 10 other semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tales here) the most memorable part of Empire of Light is that which is arguably the least autobiographical — the relationship between Colman’s aging maid, Hilary, and a handsome black aspiring college student Stephen, played by Michael Ward.

The two work together at the local cinema, the Empire, aka the “empire of light” of the title, just to put a point on it. Imagine an elevated, incredibly British arthouse Clerks shot by the legendary Roger Deakins and you’re not far off. Hilary is the old salt jack of all trades and Stephen has just been hired. Hilary, who’s been having an unfulfilling affair with the boss (Mr. Ellis, played by Colin Firth), seems sad a lot, stuck trying to relate to the teens and 20-somethings who populate the Empire’s staff, with her only peers the persnickety projectionist played by Toby Jones, and the boss, who seems only to pay attention to Hilary when he wants a handjob (Firth typecasting at work). When Stephen arrives, aside from making all the young girls swoon, his bright-eyed enthusiasm allows Hilary to experience the magic of cinema through fresh eyes again.

Stephen and Hilary bond over a wounded pigeon (classic), and eventually embark on a kind of unconventional May-December courtship. On paper, Stephen is a bit of an idealized black striver — handsome, caring, patient, enthusiastic, hard-working — basically perfect. He provides a lens into both the two-tone scene (Stephen is into smart suits, skinny ties, and ska, basically the exact guy every band I loved when I was 15 was trying to imitate) and the racial strife of the peak-skinhead era.

It makes sense that Mendes would want to personify and personalize the National Front violence that was roiling when he was a teen, but the obvious risk is making Stephen so pure and symbolic that he ceases to be human. On paper, Stephen sort of is that, but Michael Ward breathes real life into him, providing a spark of life that transcends the inherent tropeyness. That Empire Of Light is shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t hurt either.

All the while, the big question hanging over everything is why Hilary is still working in this cinema at her age, why she wants so badly to relate to the young coworkers, why she’s so moody. The answer turns out to be something clinical. She relates to Stephen, it turns out, because while he’s just starting out, she’s always having to start over. It’s like she’s trapped in a cycle of perpetual adolescence, always full of potential and on the cusp of something, but doomed never to realize it. The role of Hilary, written specifically for Colman, is an actor’s showcase, a real this-will-win-you-an-Oscar kind of role, which could easily be offputting. Yet Colman finds the authenticity in her, puts it in a chokehold and never lets go. I don’t even really know what else there is to say about her. She’s a marvel.

There is something decidedly hokey about the entire concept of Empire of Light, as succinctly conveyed in the title. At one point Toby Jones actually waxes philosophic about the little beam of light that makes film images, and the characters have a (thankfully brief) moment of bonding over this idea of films as some magical escape. Ah, did you not get that, that the Empire Cinema was the “empire of light” and that the light comes from the projector??

Empire of Light, by and large, strikes me as one of those stories that maybe started out as a bit of a corny idea, the kernel of it something like this monologue, but in the course of writing it, the characters became real enough that they sort of took on a life of their own. Which is exactly what’s supposed to happen, at that point you can throw out the initial pitch. Empire of Light creates this beautiful relationship that defies all categorization. Belaboring the central metaphor of it just to say “film is great because it’s an escape” feels like a regression, and a reduction of why Empire Of Light is actually good. Film isn’t great because “it’s an escape from the strife around us” or some such, it’s great because of the film you just showed us.

‘Empire of Light’ is available only in theaters on December 9th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.