'Empire of Light' is intriguing look into director Sam Mendes' childhood filled with magic of cinema

BySandy Kenyon OTRC logo
Friday, December 9, 2022
'Empire of Light' is 1980s love story based on magic of cinema
"Empire of Light" shares Director Sam Mendes' story about his love for cinema and his mother's influence throughout his childhood in the 1980s. Sandy Kenyon has the story.

NEW YORK -- Sam Mendes earned an Oscar for his first movie "American Beauty" and directed two James Bond movies before turning to more personal projects.

"1917," which earned him three more Academy Awards, told his grandfather's World War I story. His latest, "Empire of Light," is rooted in his own childhood.

It takes place in and around a movie theater overlooking the sea in a British town.

That's where two people of different ages and backgrounds meet and bond.

The magic of the movies is illuminated through this pair who find solace in each other and refuge in a cinema, where both Hilary, played by Olivia Colman and Stephen, played by Micheal Ward, work.

"This whole place is for people who want to escape," says the cinema's projectionist, played by Toby Jones. It's for, "people who don't belong anywhere else."

"Empire of Light" is a reflection of a certain time when Mendes found his calling and his place in the 1980s.

The writer and director notes that his film features, "the music and the movies especially of the early '80s and the politics of that time and all of that bubbled to the surface when I was writing it during the pandemic when we were worried that cinema was going completely and we'd never have it again."

Olivia Colman's character is based loosely on the filmmaker's own mother, who raised him while facing mental illness.

"He watched someone disintegrate as he was growing up with his mummy who struggled with this," Coleman said at the movie's premiere. She said she felt a "responsibility, but he was there every step of the way to help and guide and hold us by the hand."

In the film, Hilary forms a bond with Stephen that proves essential as her mental health deteriorates.

"He wants to help her," Ward said. "So I think that shows you the heart of Stephen. He's a good guy which we don't really see much of young, black kids in cinema."

It's tempting to call this a love letter to the movies, but it really is so much more than that: a romance and a drama about the effects of mental illness on a person and those around her.

There is a lot to explore, too much to cover in a couple of hours. But, entertainment reporter Sandy Kenyon still recommends "Empire of Light."

It's in theaters now from Searchlight, owned by the same parent company as this station.