‘Empire of Light’ Is an Old-School Oscar Contender With a Career-Best Performance From Olivia Colman

·3 min read

Roughly a year ago, Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” launched out of Telluride, and there was something about that film’s emotional expansiveness and the irresistible pull of its unapologetic nostalgia that made it clear it was going to be a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars.

I got the same sense watching Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” at its Telluride premiere this past weekend. It has a similar open heartedness even if the setting for the movie is an English seaside town and not the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland.

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Cinema seeps through “Empire of Light.” Mendes’ latest doesn’t just swoon for the images that flicker across screens; it also pays tribute to the physical buildings that house our most cherished artform and the sense of escapism that gets triggered every time you sit down in one of those palaces. If you are a movie lover, it’s hard to resist “Empire of Light’s” charm and stylized beauty.

What may work against the film is that it is also a tad over-stuffed with a script that tackles interracial love, racism, mental health, infidelity and oh yes, the U.K. premiere of “Chariots of Fire.” That’s a lot to cover in two hours. Given that, “Empire of Light” may face troubles garnering an original screenplay nod.

But Mendes’ ensemble of actors papers over those shortcomings.

For one thing, there’s a career best performance from Olivia Colman. And that’s not an easy task for the legendary actress to pull off given that her CV boasts an Oscar-winning turn in “The Favourite” (2018) and nominated performances in “The Father” (2020) and “The Lost Daughter” (2021). Indeed, the lead actress race is going to be fierce. Colman enters the fray alongside Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) and Cate Blanchett (“Tar”), with Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”) and Viola Davis (“The Woman King”) waiting just over the horizon. Will we have room for all these acting goddesses in the best actress lineup?

Micheal Ward, who already turned heads in Steve McQueen’s anthology series “Small Axe,” gives a standout performance as a new movie theater employee who forms an unlikely bond with Colman’s ticket taker when they find themselves employed at the same smalltown cinema. But he’ll probably have to wait to land an Oscar nod. That’s not because his work isn’t sterling. It’s due to the fact that the leading actor race is already brimming with stars like Colin Farrell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”), Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”) and Hugh Jackman (“The Son”).

Toby Jones, a cherished character actor, seems like a safer bet to find his way to his first acting nomination. Playing the projectionist Norman, he has two killer scenes involving an explanation on how the light of movies transport us, and another that reveals his character’s backstory.

Mendes, who won the Oscar for “American Beauty” and nearly picked up another prize three years ago for “1917,” has enough respect among his directing colleagues to land another nom. His passion can be felt on every frame of “Empire of Light.”

Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Lee Smith’s editing and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ sublime score also should be penciled in for recognition. Production and costumes can also easily follow suit, along with sound and makeup. This very well could be the most nominated film this season if Oscar voters succumb to its charms.

The problem though is that there’s another celebration of all things cinema just about to unspool with Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” a deeply personal portrait of the auteur as a young man that’s scheduled to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next weekend. Will “Empire of Light” be one of those films that fades into the background when a shinier object comes along?

I hope not. Don’t take “Empire of Light” for granted.

Read Variety’s Awards Circuit predictions to keep up with the latest Oscar race updates.

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