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‘Empire of Light’ celebrates the power of film to heal lost souls

Olivia Colman delivers a delicate yet ferocious performance at the heart of Sam Mendes’s tender and tear-soaked valentine to cinema

Olivia Colman, left, and Micheal Ward in “Empire of Light.” (Searchlight Pictures/AP)
(3.5 stars)

Olivia Colman delivers an alternately delicate and ferocious performance as a cinema manager in “Empire of Light,” a tender, tear-soaked valentine to the ineffable joys of moviegoing.

Colman plays Hilary, a quiet, rather dowdy woman living in an unnamed seaside town in England in the 1980s. As “Empire of Light” opens, we meet one of her most beguiling co-stars: the Empire Cinema, a faded but vibrant art deco movie palace whose marquee during this Christmas season is advertising “The Blues Brothers” and “All That Jazz.” We meet the staff as they compare notes about eccentric customers and the worst thing they ever found as they cleaned up after the last show. Eventually, Hilary’s boss, Mr. Ellis — played with characteristic diffidence by Colin Firth — arrives, stiffly giving her a box of candy “with deep affection.”

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Just how deep becomes disquietingly clear in scenes to come; written and directed by Sam Mendes, “Empire of Light” doles out its information carefully and discreetly, as the contours of Hilary’s life make themselves known. There’s a tightly coiled sense of control at the center of her studied equanimity. When a newcomer joins the staff — an attractive, exuberant younger man named Stephen, portrayed with a disarming lack of guile by newcomer Micheal Ward — Hilary’s world expands, but her growing happiness also threatens to tip over into something more dangerous and increasingly terrifying.

The sleepy, small-town rhythms of “Empire of Light” are given pace and momentum by Mr. Ellis’s news that the Empire will play host to a genuine red-carpet premiere, of a new movie called “Chariots of Fire.” Thus is the film’s climax set in motion, except that it turns out to be something of a misdirect. Filmed by Roger Deakins in exquisite hues of gold and amber, and accompanied by an equally sensitive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, “Empire of Light” is commendable not for its plot but for its collection of (mostly) sympathetic characters — not just Hilary and Stephen, who pursue an interracial friendship against the backdrop of Thatcher-era skinhead thuggery — but the Empire’s eclectic staff: the punk-tough usher Janine (Hannah Onslow), the observant junior manager Neil (Tom Brooke), and Norman (Toby Jones), the theater’s fastidious projectionist who carries film canisters as if he’s bearing the holy elements.

“Empire of Light” turns out to be the second movie this season in which a character delivers a tutorial on the concept of persistence of vision — the trick of the eye that allows movies to work their magic, whereby a series of single frames is perceived to be one continuous image. In Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” that speech was meant to show the audience how the artist as a young man became fascinated not just by the mechanics of film but by its manipulative effect on the audience.

For Mendes, such disquisitions aren’t as self-congratulatory; rather, he has made a movie dedicated to the modest proposition that it takes viewers — not heroic auteurs — to create a film, or at least complete its expressive circuit. Colman dominates the film’s most dramatically vivid scenes, when Hilary reaches the end of the many ropes she’s been gripping so tightly. But the most upsetting sequence might be one in which a “scooter riot” of the aforementioned fascist hooligans comes dangerously close to destroying the grandeur of the Empire’s magnificent lobby, as if insurrectionists were attacking a citadel of civility itself.

“Empire of Light” occasionally overplays its sentiment — a subplot involving an injured bird feels manufactured and contrived. But it’s a soothingly beautiful film — visually pleasing, emotionally rich, and authentically touching when it comes to Hilary and Stephen’s evolving relationship. (A shot early in the film, in which Hilary tends to the box office alone, exudes a Hopper-esque tone of elegiac solitude.) Mendes pays homage to the films of his youth by way of the films that play as a way to mark time: “Stir Crazy” here, “Raging Bull” there; but his ode to the medium he loves goes even deeper, not just to its power to generate empathy, but to its pluralism. In “Empire of Light,” the theater is a great democratizer: a convener for misfits, loners and dreamers of every stripe. With this bittersweet gem of a film, Mendes has given spectators a modest but profound gift: the reminder that, at their best, movies offer us not just a refuge, but a way to join the thrum of life, in all its pain and ungovernable glory.

R. At area theaters. Contains sexuality, strong language and brief violence. 119 minutes.

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