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Empire of Light

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“If my movie has made one more person miserable, I feel I’ve done my job.” Woody Allen

With our current struggles over MAGA and white supremacy, you’d think 1981 would be paradise. Not so for Sam Mendes’ poignant and punishing Empire of Light, a drama soaking in conservative Thatcherite politics, race relation clashes like Brixton riots, the National Front, and eventually Brexit. It’s a torn world made sane by a visit to the Empire, an art deco palace where Mendes battles out dreams and reality through film.

Hilary (Olivia Colman, at her best) is a middle-aged manager, lonely and a literal handmaiden to the boss. That is her reality uncompromised by seeing movies that would allow her relief, actually no movies at all.

Along comes ticket-taker Stephen (Michael Ward), impossibly handsome Sydney Poitierish, to bring her romance and thrust her into the reality of white supremacy. Not until she faces the torture of love and the storming realities outside the glass doors does she begin to live and eventually discover the salutary effects of cinema.

Empire of Light is a story of the little lives inside the theater, not on the screen. It underscores the communal virtue of working and viewing together, crying or laughing, or whatever, as long as we share it together.

Besides characters already mentioned is the imperial projectionist, Norman (a spot-on Toby Jones), whose interpretation of the light and dark inherent in 24 frames per second is as good a parsing of the meaning of Mendes’ film.

This melancholy take on the conjunction of appearance and reality is somewhat similar to Cinema Paradiso with both relying on the theme of dream/reality cinema. The choice of Being There for a film projected at Empire influencing Hillary is appropriate: She too becomes figuratively homeless and yet retains an almost mystical influence.

And you thought cinema was just escape; like life itself, there is no evading reality, even when it’s projected on a screen.

Empire of Light

Director: Sam Mendes (1917)

Screenplay: Mendes

Cast: Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)

Run Time: 1h 59m

Rating: R

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com

John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.