On Saturday afternoon, as a hailstorm passed overhead, the Telluride Film Festival hosted the second of its world premiere screenings this year: Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light.” The Oscar-winning director introduced the film, a love story set at a U.K. movie theater in the early 1980s, as “by far the most personal thing I’ve ever done.” Given how his previous film, the war movie “1917” that was inspired by Mendes’ grandfather, dramatically changed the awards season conversation in 2019, there is already a good chance this love letter to cinema will be a big contender in multiple Academy Awards categories come March.
Besides Best Picture and Best Director for Mendes, the biggest one would be Olivia Colman, who serves as the protagonist for most of the film. While her Best Actress win for “The Favourite” in 2019 was seen by many as an upset, the British star has been a perennial nominee for both film and TV awards, receiving two more Oscar nominations and one Emmy win for “The Crown.” The latter project is what actually drew Mendes toward casting Colman as Hilary, a forlorn woman working concessions at the Empire Cinema. One could say that the common thread of the characters Colman plays is their sharpness, but Hilary comes across as a little more off-kilter. Even if she is maybe a shoo-in for Best Actress off reputation alone, “Empire of Light” does offer a side of Colman we have not seen yet. And she seems grateful for the opportunity, popping into the Werner Herzog Theatre via Zoom to call Mendes her favorite director (with apologies to any other former filmmakers she’s worked with that may have been in the room).
For its Best Actor candidate, the film introduces much of the Academy to Micheal Ward. The 24-year-old actor is best known for the British Netflix series “Top Boy,” which is huge with Black audiences in Britain, but is more of a cult hit stateside. Although he is compelling as the new theater employee Stephen, who brings light into Hilary’s life, Ward’s role is one of those lead performances that awards team could get away with positioning as supporting. Viewers do get a few scenes that are more through his eyes, but the film belongs to his scene partner Colman.
The “Empire of Light” star that actually would make much more sense as the film’s Best Supporting Actor candidate is Toby Jones. The veteran character actor is a nice surprise in the film, playing a projectionist that gives a speech about the magic of cinema that rivals Nicole Kidman’s infamous AMC commercial. When talking about casting Jones, Mendes said “something came full circle there” because it turns out he has been friends with the director and “Empire of Light” producer Pippa Harris since they were all 11 years old.
Colin Firth also has a supporting role in the film, but his screen time equates to this just being a quick gig he took on to spend a couple days with Mendes and Colman. The rest of the cast are in a similar boat, not having enough to do to rise to the level of awards consideration.
Below the line, “Empire of Light” will likely be receiving several nominations, with previous winners like cinematographer Roger Deakins and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross really excelling at all the bits of the film that emphasize movie magic. Production Designer Mark Tildesley also did a killer job of making the theater seem like a must-see destination. Even the abandoned parts of the building have their charm.
Perhaps the greatest hurdle the film will have to face will come in the Best Original Screenplay category. “Empire of Light” is at its best when celebrating how cinema connects us, and can even heal filmgoers. Where it has trouble is in how it depicts both Hilary and Stephen being marginalized by society.
The May-December aspect to their relationship immediately draws comparisons to fellow contender “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” a film that dedicates much more time to what makes its leads compatible, and what troubles its female protagonist is actually going through. Meanwhile, the film also happens to be set mere months after the events depicted in James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” which also tries to give the audience an idea of how bad race relations were in 1980. Tastes differ, and the Academy may prefer “Empire of Light” tiptoeing around the word “racism” while “Armageddon Time” addresses what the issue is more directly. “Green Book” did win Best Picture only three years ago. But it is an element of the plot that will likely be dissected by critics once more people see it this fall.