Let There Be Light

At first the new film “Empire of Light” by Sam Mendes, about a movie theater on the south coast of the UK in the early 1980s, appears to be a comedy. There are plenty of laughs in the first act but it’s a drama through and through. I thought comedy because there’s a British film from 1957 about a couple who inherit a cinema called “The Smallest Show on Earth.”

“Empire of Light” is about the projection beam that thrusts pictures onto a screen; the light is about the revelation people have from their own realization of events.

“Empire of Light” concentrates on the relation between the ticket manager (Olivia Coleman ready for another Oscar) and a new hire played by “Lover’s Rock” star Michael Ward. Colin Firth is the cinema’s manager, himself having an affair with Coleman behind his wife’s back. This does not end well.

The setting of the seaside South Coast of England cinema posits that it’s a popular place with a large staff for the crowds in the early ’80s. Films like “The Blues Brothers,” “The Last Waltz” and “Chariots of Fire” are first run. Other posters of the era hang on the wall. The building is so big that fully one half of the property is in mothballs, with only two screens in large auditoriums being used. Part of the attraction of the film is seeing how the establishment, the Empire Cinema, gets involved with events of the era. New sounds like ska and punk influence some of the employees, while others are fixated on classic Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens. The cinema is on a main road where a motorcade of skinheads could easily escalate into a riotous mob. New Year’s fireworks are best experienced from the upper balcony.

Director Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins expertly capture the resultant vibes that depict the fragile lives on display.

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