Set in a cinema, Sam Mendes’s new film is a celebration of the big screen and also one of the most personal films the 1917 director has ever made.
Empire of Light sees Olivia Colman playing a woman struggling with mental health issues, a character based on the celebrated filmmaker’s own mother.
“It all came from a very personal experience so we had the best person on set every day to go to ask,” Colman told Sky News. “He would talk about watching his beloved mummy become powerful, become eloquent, become incredible, and then just tip over and then go into the decline, and he calls her heroic.
“So, although it was a hell of a journey to play, I did have this incredible sort of font of knowledge in front of me at all times.”
Set in the 1980s, the story also takes in the race riots in the UK in that decade, with Mendes collaborating with his cast – including Micheal Ward, who won BAFTA’s rising star award in 2020.
“Feeling like you have a say on set, especially when you’re working with a director like Sam, is amazing,” said Ward. “I got an early version of the script, which he asked me a lot of questions about.
“For him to have that kind of vulnerability with someone like me… to work with someone that is so incredible but is so willing to bring ideas together was so amazing for me, it was a great experience.”
The drama is also a love letter to cinema itself. As some films struggle to attract audiences, this a timely reminder of the beauty of the big screen experience.
“It’s not just the fact of sitting in a room with all those people – and that’s a huge part of it – it’s also the pilgrimage you make in order to see a film,” said Colin Firth, who plays the cinema’s manager.
“Pre-VHS, let’s say, you don’t get that experience unless you make a decision, travel, arrive, buy a ticket, and then all the chocolate-covered raisins or whatever.”
Toby Jones, who plays a projectionist, believes cinema will survive the downturn caused by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis.
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“One of the great pleasures in the world is going off and anonymously joining an audience… and sort of disappearing in some way into the life of someone or some other community who are being portrayed on screen,” he said.
“I can’t foresee that pleasure, that ancient pleasure in a way, is going to disappear. It’s just maybe slightly slow to come back into people’s daily routine.”
Set in the past but with themes so pertinent now, Empire Of Light is more than just a trip down memory lane – and could well be Sam Mendes’s latest ticket to awards season.
Watch Empire Of Light in cinemas in the UK from 9 January