Above: Oscar-winning actress Olivia Coleman as Hilary in Empire of Light. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

By Mark Fields

Nothing much happens in Empire of Light. There is, of course, a rather terrifying albeit brief neo-Nazi riot about halfway through. But, most of the rest of this quietly devastating British drama takes place in hushed moments of often-awkward human interaction and also in the heavy laden silences between the words. Despite the low-key nature of the story, director-writer Sam Mendes’ engrossing film reveals a deep understanding of despair and the challenges to make the personal connections necessary to ward off that despair. And although the abundance of dark adjectives in this paragraph would make it seem otherwise, Empire of Light ultimately offers a strong note of resilient hope.

Oscar-winning actress Olivia Coleman (The Favourite) plays Hilary, a cinema worker in a 1980s coastal resort town. Hilary’s days evoke the comforting monotony of routine as she methodically cycles through her work tasks, and similarly conducts her lonely personal life. Her stoic façade, however, masks a more troubled, even turbulent inner life, which Mendes’ sly, deliberate screenplay teases out slowly over the first half of the film.

Hilary strikes up a growing friendship with Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young, Black new employee, and with his unexpected attentions, seems to bloom as a vibrant person before our eyes. The violent outcomes of the mid-film riot mentioned above, brings Hilary’s newly soaring emotions to a crashing setback.

Coleman is both illuminous and forbidding as she reveals the warring impulses of Hilary’s fragile mental state. The actress — who has been so captivating in numerous recent films and TV shows (The Lost Daughter, The Father, The Crown, Broadchurch) — is a chameleon performer shifting from nobility to working class roles with equal conviction. Empire of Light is clearly intended as a showcase for Coleman’s extraordinary gift of subtly evoking complex and contradictory emotions, and she is thoroughly mesmerizing.

Ward, a relative newcomer to film, holds his own in their scenes together. And the two are well supported by sturdy performances in a variety of minor roles from Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, and Tanya Moodie.

Mendes, an accomplished theater director, has a strong rapport with actors and has long demonstrated an ability to draw out powerful performances from them, dating back to his feature debut, American Beauty. Even his recent forays into the Bond franchise — the splendid Skyfall and the less-so Spectre — have been notable for their unexpectedly good acting. 

Mendes and his acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins share a similar mastery of light and color, and Empire of Light fairly vibrates with the radiance of its images: the lambent opulence of an empty movie palace, the garish kaleidoscope of a street carnival, the drama of New Year’s fireworks over the sea.

The potent combination of compelling acting, insightful screenplay, and stunning visuals make Empire of Light a satisfying cinematic experience, one that should get plenty of deserved attention come awards seasons.