Bob Mondello |
NPRThursday, December 8, 2022
"Empire of Light" is director Sam Mendes' tribute to cinema. Actress Olivia Colman plays a slowly unraveling employee at Britain's Empire Theater in the 1980s.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Cinematic nostalgia comes in all shapes and sizes this holiday season. Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "The Fabelmans," is about how he became a filmmaker. The comedy "Babylon" will soon offer a portrait of Hollywood in the Roaring '20s. And today we have "Empire Of Light," which critic Bob Mondello says is set almost entirely inside a grand old movie palace.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When it opened in the 1920s, the seaside Empire theater must have been fabulous - towering art deco sign facing the boardwalk; a grand double staircase in the lobby; burnished, curved wood on the walls; brass fittings polished till they gleam like gold to match the gold swirls in the burgundy carpet.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")
TOBY JONES: (As Norman) Look around you. This whole place is for people who want to escape, people who don't belong anywhere else.
MONDELLO: And that's just the lobby. In the auditorium, acres of seats face a velvet curtain that parts to reveal a majestic screen.
MICHEAL WARD: (As Stephen) Wow.
MONDELLO: It still has the power to awe. But this is the Maggie Thatcher '80s. And the films on the marquee now are "The Blues Brothers" and "All That Jazz," two titles because the grand old Empire theater fell on hard times and got chopped into a multiplex. But folks still come. And Hilary, played by Olivia Colman, still forces a smile through her numbness while selling them popcorn until the arrival of a new employee, a student played by Micheal Ward, with an upbeat, Sidney Poitier vibe. They strike up a friendship, and suddenly, she's full of life, encouraging him.
WARD: (As Stephen) They turned me down the first time.
OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Hilary) To study what?
WARD: (As Stephen) Architecture.
COLMAN: (As Hilary) Oh, that would be wonderful.
WARD: (As Stephen) Yeah.
COLMAN: (As Hilary) You have to try again.
WARD: (As Stephen) Yeah, maybe.
COLMAN: (As Hilary) Well, you can't just give up. Stephen, don't let them tell you what you can or can't do. No one's going to give you the life you want. You have to go out and get it.
MONDELLO: Excellent advice, though, of course, she's not done that herself. And when her moods turn erratic, it becomes clear why. That numbness she had before? Medicated. Stephen's there and responsible, but when she's off her meds and creates a scene...
WARD: (As Stephen) Hilary, are you all right?
COLMAN: (As Hilary) Tell me truthfully. Did I humiliate myself?
WARD: (As Stephen) What?
COLMAN: (As Hilary) Tell me. Did I?
MONDELLO: There's only so much cover he can provide.
WARD: (As Stephen) No, it wasn't humiliating. It was just intense. To be honest, I thought you were a bit of a hero.
COLMAN: (As Hilary) That's very nice of you. Hard to believe.
MONDELLO: Filmmaker Sam Mendes reportedly built "Empire Of Light" around Colman, and eyes darting, smile tentative, she delivers for him. The director also built the film around his setting. And the Empire theater doesn't let him down either, a movie palace of the sort that audiences have increasingly been giving up for streaming services despite the everyday miracle they deliver.
JONES: (As Norman) Film - it's just static frames with darkness in between.
MONDELLO: Toby Jones' projectionist musing to Stephen about the magic they work in this place.
JONES: (As Norman) There's a little flaw in your optic nerve. So if I run the film at 24 frames per second, it creates an illusion of motion, an illusion of life. So you don't see the darkness.
MONDELLO: Darkness - what darkness? For Mendes, darkness is what you get when you turn off the TV. At the cinema, he sees, as will audiences, an empire of light. I'm Bob Mondello.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.
Delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Check out a sample ReCap newsletter.
Thank you for signing up for the ReCap newsletter! We'll send you an email each Friday with the top stories from CapRadio.
California coronavirus updates: Las Vegas airport reports record passenger volume in 2022
In Turkey and Syria, outdated building methods all but assured disaster from a quake
10 new California laws that go into effect in 2023
California ends plans for kids’ Covid vaccine mandate
How a new law is bringing more attention to natural carbon sequestration