This could be Olivia Colman’s finest role yet

This could be Olivia Colman’s finest role yet

MA, 119 minutes
In cinemas March 2

The Empire at the centre of Sam Mendes’ film is an old-fashioned picture palace on the seashore of the southern English town of Margate.

It’s long past its heyday. The upstairs lounge is derelict – a roost for the pigeons who have found a way through the gaps in its roof and windows – but the place’s art deco glories live on in the cinemas on the lower floor.

Mendes is the third writer-director in recent months to ruminate on the seductive nature of the big screen and the stories that unfold there. But he’s taking a different tack from Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Damien Chazelle’s Babylon.

Olivia Colman’s role as Hilary has turned out to be one of the best things she has ever done.Credit:

He’s not interested in the creators of those quicksilver images. Nor is he tackling his theme from the front stalls. His focus is on the Empire’s staff – a small group of individualists who have formed a family of sorts as they go about selling tickets, dispensing popcorn and ensuring the theatre’s sessions run on time.

Despite the pomposities of their boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth at his greyest), the Empire is home to them. However, the only real film fan among them is projectionist Norman (Toby Jones). Towards the film’s end, he delivers the script’s single tribute to the magic of cinema: “…if I run the film at 24 frames per second, you don’t see the darkness … viewing static images rapidly in succession creates an illusion of motion, an illusion of life.”

The key words here are darkness and life. The film’s mood swings between the two, mirroring the volatile emotional state of the Empire’s front-of-house manager, Hilary (Olivia Colman), whose battle with bipolar disorder was inspired, we’re told, by the psychiatric problems suffered by Mendes’ mother, Valerie.

Mendes grew up in Britain in the early 1980s and he’s furnished his script with references to the decade’s defining elements. The era’s music spices up the soundtrack while its fashions, pop culture and political climate all do their bit. There are none of the soft edges that afflict so many films dealing in nostalgia. It’s lit and photographed with magnificent clarity by Roger Deakins, who’s been nominated for an Oscar.

Politics enter the picture when Stephen (Micheal Ward) comes to work at the Empire. He’s young and handsome with an easy-going charm, despite being a Brit of Caribbean heritage at a time when racial tensions are coming to the boil.

Skinheads prowl the Margate promenade but at the Empire everybody likes him. Norman recognises him as a fellow film fan. And Hilary, who’s been having fumbling, joyless sex with the egregious Ellis, finds a kindred spirit.

Mendes wrote the part of Hilary for Colman after seeing her in The Crown and it’s turned out to be one of the best things she has ever done, earning her a Golden Globe nomination. She downplays the tremulous modesty that has long been her trademark. Hilary is modest and often on the verge of giving in to the gloom that shadows her day by day but there’s also a steeliness that Colman has rarely shown, even in The Crown.

Underpinning Hilary’s depression is a profound sense of grievance going back to her childhood. Every now and again it explodes, bringing on a storm so sudden that everyone around runs for cover.

These are tricky scenes to bring off but Mendes has written them with such care and Colman performs them with such a delicate awareness of just how far they should be taken that the swift changes in pace and tone don’t hit a false note.

The film has its critics. Some have decided Mendes has strained too hard to get all his messages across, making Stephen little more than a stereotype, but Ward banishes that complaint with the vitality and the understanding he brings to the part. He and Colman spark off one another. It’s not hard to care a great deal about them both.

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