Poetry is everywhere in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. It is often quoted by its main character, Hillary, (Olivia Colman, who keeps topping herself). The opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is the answer to a crossword puzzle. The film is set in the town where Eliot wrote his epic poem about the end of everything. Once mankind saw what the first world war could do, there was an awareness that humanity had entered a new era of apocalyptic war. We were never the same after that.
Poetry is never that far from the character of Hillary, and she calls upon poets to help her make sense of a world where she doesn’t exactly have a place. She works in a movie theater called The Empire, but to her it is just a job. She doesn’t go to see the movies. She doesn’t yet understand the magic.
And the poems Mendes has chosen here, like the pop culture references throughout — some of us who grew up in the 1980s will remember fishnets and Doc Martens — are about love for and appreciation of the past, the good with the bad. Poems, like movies, like great songwriting, are lifelines that can bring us back from the brink. We are only human, after all. We all start out hopeful enough, with our futures laid out. Life gets in the way of our dreams, kicks us around, leaves us heartbroken, angry, frustrated, alienated, and sometimes hated. The luckiest among us can reach for art to put us back together again.
And so Mendes has brought us poetry. He’s brought us Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. He’s brought us a movie screen a thousand miles wide. He’s brought us Ska music and carefree sex on the top floor of a movie theater that once was a grand palace but now is home to pigeons and broken glass. He brings us Being There and Stir Crazy and Chariots of Fire. Yes, by god, Chariots of Fire.
Empire of Light is as dreamy as it sounds. It is also painful in places and hard to watch. It is absolutely the work of someone who knows how to make a movie. While 1917 was about World War I, it was also about telling the story in one long take. Empire of Light is not about reinventing how movies are made so much as it is about remembering why movies are made.
They’re made for us. They’re built for us. All of that popcorn, the darkness that falls just before the screen flickers to life, the story being told is all for us. It is the great escape and something that has felt like, for a brief time, was about to go all the way away.
Mendes said he wrote Empire of Light during lockdown at a time when it really did feel like the end of movies in movie theaters. Many of shared that worry that the end was nigh. Even last year’s slate, despite glimmers of resilience this past summer, felt like a long shadow falling on an industry that might be fading away. And then we’re gifted with a movie called Empire of Light at the 49th Telluride Film Festival and we realize just how much we still need great movies.
Many filmmakers came out of lockdown with their eyes on the uprisings of various stories of war. We saw this with Kenneth Branagh and Belfast last year that was also written during lockdown. That’s because the other thing that happened in 2020, besides COVID, was the worldwide reckoning about racism after the murder of George Floyd. Empire of Light is Mendes’ first original screenplay, based somewhat on his own upbringing 1980s, as a new rise of hard-right racism began exploding on the streets.
Mendes takes us back to a time in history when the streets were once again on fire. In the midst of this turmoil, a an enthusiastic new employee named Stephen enters the theater and into Hillary’s life. Empire of Light isn’t exactly a story about racism, but it’s a necessary element to telling Stephen’s story. As a Black man, he couldn’t walk down the street or go into nightclubs without people staring at him, or sometimes harassing him or physically assaulting him. With empathy, Mendes is telling the story of his own life growing up with his mother, and having a built-in need to rescue wounded creatures.
Stephen and Hillary find their way to one another into a strange kind of love story. She’s older, he’s younger. She’s white, he’s Black. It makes no sense at all, yet something in both of them makes it impossible to stop. Where the story goes is an emotional journey that I would not want to spoil here.
Empire of Light is the kind of movie that makes the case for movies to exist at all. Shot by Roger Deakins, with a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, set in a classic movie theater in the 1980s? I mean, we’re almost all the way there already. Then you add in Olivia Colman’s performance which might be not only her own personal best but one of the best ever, along with Michael Ward, and supporting players like Colin Firth and Toby Jones and you are certain movies will never die, not when directors like Sam Mendes are still making them.
And so it is with this film that I could not stop crying for its entirety. It wasn’t just the story of it. It was the beauty of it. Every frame. Every note of music. Every glance out a window, and yes, every time they showed that big beautiful movie house with its red velvet curtains and its plushy seats we know now show signs of age.
Empire of Light tells its story outside of the movie theater, It’s about those who keep the movie theater business running, tearing the tickets, selling the candy, sweeping up the sticky popcorn off the floors, and how their lives sometimes fall apart or come together in unpredictable ways. Most of us don’t realize how many wonders we take for granted every day, like someone who works at a movie theater but never watches the movies. Art, poetry and yes, MOVIES are around us all of the time. We only need to reach for them.
Mendes closes his film with this poem by Philip Larkin:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Last year is dead, perhaps. But the future still lies ahead. We might have gone through the Waste Land, but we’ve come out the other side and back into the movie theater with Sam Mendes and his brilliant film, Empire of Light.