Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Sam Mendes won an Oscar for AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), and has directed other popular movies, including ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) and a couple of James Bond films: SPECTRE (2015) and SKYFALL (2012). This is his first movie since the 3-Oscar winning war film 1917 (2019), and it’s a project that seems designed for Mendes to proclaim his love of movies and belief in movie magic. However, a funny thing happened on the way to movie magic … a movie about mental health, racism, and the Margaret Thatcher era broke out.
By now we’ve all realized that a movie starring Olivia Colman (Oscar winner for THE FAVOURITE, 2018) features at least one outstanding performance. Here, she delivers as Hilary, a theater manager who doesn’t watch movies, and is in therapy for some type of breakdown that occurred over the past year. Her smile for the customers isn’t always able to hide her depression and mood swings – and neither are the ‘quickie’ meetings the married theater owner, Mr. Ellis (Oscar winner Colin Firth, THE KING’S SPEECH, 2010), calls when the urge strikes. Her vulnerability and solitude are on full display.
The closeness of the theater staff is evident by the time new employee, Stephen (Michael Ward), shows up. He brings a spark, along with an ambition for advanced education, and he and Hilary hit it off immediately. Romance blossoms between the odd couple, and we soon learn Stephen has grown accustomed to facing racism, while Hilary seems oblivious to such things happening in the world. Empire Cinema is located on the seaside boardwalk, and the plush lobby is coated in heavy red velvet and adorned with sparkling brass fixtures. The timeframe is evident from the theater’s movie posters: BLUES BROTHERS, ALL THAT JAZZ, STIR CRAZY, etc.
The closed off screens 3 and 4 and the upper-level abandoned ballroom act as the rendezvous spot for Hilary and Stephen, while fireworks and a New Year’s rooftop kiss bring joy and excitement into Hilary’s life. The always interesting Toby Jones plays old school projectionist Norman, and he helps explain the second meaning of the film’s title when he describes the beam of light that flashes through the 24 frames/second of film. He terms that beam of light an “escape”, which is how so many view the movies.
Hilary’s history of schizophrenia and depression and lithium treatment mean that smooth sailing will not last for her. A street riot spills over into the theater and the scene shifts to the local hospital, where another character is introduced – one that might have added quite a bit to the story if expanded. Mendes chooses an odd approach to paying tribute to cinema, even when Hilary does finally realize the magic in a scene that recalls CINEMA PARADISO (although Hal Ashby’s gem BEING THERE is what she watches). Cinematographer extraordinaire and two-time Oscar winner Roger Deakins proves yet again how his work can elevate a film, as does the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (the Oscar winning composers).
Mendes chooses a restrained presentation, and though many of us believe in that feeling of elation associated with movies, no one believes movie magic is a cure for anything as serious as mental illness or racism. There are some terrific individual scenes that work better than the movie as a whole, but it’s unclear whether the film needed to be shorter, longer, or just better constructed.
Opens in theaters on December 9, 2022