Empire of Light, a drama set in the early 1980s within and against the backdrop of a grand old British seaside cinema, had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival’s Herzog Theatre on Saturday afternoon, and proved to be the fest’s biggest crowd-pleaser so far.
A smart, understated, old-fashioned movie that doesn’t aim to set the world on fire, but is solid and satisfying, Empire of Light, which Searchlight will release on Dec. 9, looks to be a formidable Oscar contender given its reception here; the track records of its writer/director, Sam Mendes, and its leading lady, Olivia Colman; and the fact that the Academy loves few things more than a good movie about the movies.
Mendes, who introduced the film (with Colman and her up-and-coming costar Micheal Ward joining via Zoom), would have fit in perfectly during Hollywood’s Golden Age, as he has shown that he can make just about any kind of movie — from the domestic dramas American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008) to the Bond films Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) to the best war film of the 21st century, 1917 (2019) — well.
This new period piece is no exception. Mendes described it as a project born out of COVID lockdown and as personal to him as any. It centers on a middle-aged woman named Hilary (Colman) who enters into a romance with a much younger man (Ward) — yes, there are slight echoes of Colman’s character in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (2021) — who comes to work at the cinema where she has long overseen day-to-day operations for a stiff boss (Colin Firth). As the layers of the onion that is Colman’s character begin to unpeel, we learn more about her past that helps to explain her sometimes volatile nature.
While the entire ensemble of the film is perfectly cast — including Toby Jones and Tanya Moodie in small parts that they make the very most of — Colman is, as usual, the standout, and I would be very surprised if the Academy deems five more female leading performances stronger than hers. Should she receive a nom, it would be her fourth in five years, after The Favourite (2018), The Father (2020) and The Lost Daughter (2021), quite a remarkable stat.
Other contributions that are equally noteworthy and likely to garner Academy attention are the legendary two-time Oscar winner Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which makes the film looks like an Edward Hopper painting come to life; exquisite production design by Emmy winner Mark Tildesley; and an original score by two-time Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
It’s too early to say whether or not Empire of Light can crack the picture, director and original screenplay categories — Mendes would personally be eligible in each — but it’s certainly not out of the question. To be sure, one can count on Searchlight to give it as strong a shot as anyone could.