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Movie Review: 'Empire of Light'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Cinematic nostalgia comes in all shapes and sizes this holiday season. Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "The Fabelmans," is about how he became a filmmaker. The comedy "Babylon" will soon offer a portrait of Hollywood in the Roaring '20s. And today we have "Empire Of Light," which critic Bob Mondello says is set almost entirely inside a grand old movie palace.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When it opened in the 1920s, the seaside Empire theater must have been fabulous - towering art deco sign facing the boardwalk; a grand double staircase in the lobby; burnished, curved wood on the walls; brass fittings polished till they gleam like gold to match the gold swirls in the burgundy carpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

TOBY JONES: (As Norman) Look around you. This whole place is for people who want to escape, people who don't belong anywhere else.

MONDELLO: And that's just the lobby. In the auditorium, acres of seats face a velvet curtain that parts to reveal a majestic screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

MICHEAL WARD: (As Stephen) Wow.

MONDELLO: It still has the power to awe. But this is the Maggie Thatcher '80s. And the films on the marquee now are "The Blues Brothers" and "All That Jazz," two titles because the grand old Empire theater fell on hard times and got chopped into a multiplex. But folks still come. And Hilary, played by Olivia Colman, still forces a smile through her numbness while selling them popcorn until the arrival of a new employee, a student played by Micheal Ward, with an upbeat, Sidney Poitier vibe. They strike up a friendship, and suddenly, she's full of life, encouraging him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

WARD: (As Stephen) They turned me down the first time.

OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Hilary) To study what?

WARD: (As Stephen) Architecture.

COLMAN: (As Hilary) Oh, that would be wonderful.

WARD: (As Stephen) Yeah.

COLMAN: (As Hilary) You have to try again.

WARD: (As Stephen) Yeah, maybe.

COLMAN: (As Hilary) Well, you can't just give up. Stephen, don't let them tell you what you can or can't do. No one's going to give you the life you want. You have to go out and get it.

MONDELLO: Excellent advice, though, of course, she's not done that herself. And when her moods turn erratic, it becomes clear why. That numbness she had before? Medicated. Stephen's there and responsible, but when she's off her meds and creates a scene...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

WARD: (As Stephen) Hilary, are you all right?

COLMAN: (As Hilary) Tell me truthfully. Did I humiliate myself?

WARD: (As Stephen) What?

COLMAN: (As Hilary) Tell me. Did I?

MONDELLO: There's only so much cover he can provide.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

WARD: (As Stephen) No, it wasn't humiliating. It was just intense. To be honest, I thought you were a bit of a hero.

COLMAN: (As Hilary) That's very nice of you. Hard to believe.

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Sam Mendes reportedly built "Empire Of Light" around Colman, and eyes darting, smile tentative, she delivers for him. The director also built the film around his setting. And the Empire theater doesn't let him down either, a movie palace of the sort that audiences have increasingly been giving up for streaming services despite the everyday miracle they deliver.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

JONES: (As Norman) Film - it's just static frames with darkness in between.

MONDELLO: Toby Jones' projectionist musing to Stephen about the magic they work in this place.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EMPIRE OF LIGHT")

JONES: (As Norman) There's a little flaw in your optic nerve. So if I run the film at 24 frames per second, it creates an illusion of motion, an illusion of life. So you don't see the darkness.

MONDELLO: Darkness - what darkness? For Mendes, darkness is what you get when you turn off the TV. At the cinema, he sees, as will audiences, an empire of light. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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