The only film I felt completely elevated by at the ’22 Telluride Film Festival was Sam MendesEmpire of Light (Searchlight, 12.9). I was actually amazed that I fell for it as I was more than somewhat skeptical going in.

Empire is set roughly 42 years ago in rural England (it was shot in Margate) and is primarily about an unstable, somewhat schizzy movie theatre manager named Hilary Small (Olivia Colman, brilliant as always) and a brief, furtive affair she has with Stephen (Michael Ward), a theatre employee of color who’s exceptionally good looking and at least 20 years younger than Hilary.

Colin Firth is a crusty theatre owner who exploits Colman sexually, casually, off and on. But this eventually goes south, partly due to Stephen and partly due to Hilary going off her meds.

As I wrote on 8.24, I found it initially difficult to believe that Hilary-Stephen would happen in such a racially volatile period (I visited London in ’76 and ’80 and could absolutely smell the enraged skinhead vibes).

“However unbalanced and erratic, Colman’s character would have had to nurse a streak of serious self-destruction to engage in a May-December affair like this,” I wrote. And why, I added, “would a smart, good-looking dude like Stephen be interested in an unstable white lady on the far side of 45? What about all those foxy 20something girls running around town? I don’t get it.”

And yet the relationship gradually seems palatable and even endearing, and you start to realize as the film unfolds that Empire is about more than just Stephen-and-Hilary, an affair that doesn’t last all that long anyway. For it’s also a misty, memory-lane valentine to moviegoing and a golden, long-eclipsed era and, if you will, a certain kind of spirituality and way of life, even, for cinema devotees.

It dawned on me after seeing Empire that Mendes, born in ’65, had partly based it on his own hopes and dreams and movie-related experiences as a 15 year-old in 1980 and ’81, but that (and I’m guessing here) he decided the story would seem more au courant (i.e., woke) if Hilary’s lover wasn’t a pale-faced teenager but a 20something black dude, and from there he was off to the races.

Wokester critics have been shitting all over Empire of Light because of the Hilary-Stephen dynamic, which they certainly don’t approve of. They’re not buying the idea of even a brief sexual attraction between the two, and they resent the notion of an older, unstable, jagged-edge Hilary peering into Stephen’s soul and vice versa. White wokesters, after all, have been put on this earth to defend the dignity of POCs and to indict any white-male-created scenario that doesn’t say or do the right thing in their regard.

But Hilary and Stephen are both outsiders in a sense (Hilary of the temperamental variety and Stephen of a bruised and guarded shade due to white nationalist fervor) and that’s the basis for their mutual understanding. I bought it. It worked for me.

I realized within 15 minutes of the beginning that Empire of Light was an exquisitely composed yesteryear film, so perfectly acted and calibrated and moving. (I was especially blown away by Tanya Moodie‘s brief performance as Stephen’s mom.) The sorehead critics still have the upper hand, but once it starts showing around everything will change — trust me.

Empire is easily one of the best films of the year, and a just-posted review by Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson supports this view.

Empire of Light is “a humble little tale of human connection,” he writes. “[It’s] the director’s most delicate, a wistful short story about two people seized by circumstance who help one another find their way through life. It’s an achingly lovely film — the best Mendes has yet made.

“Whatever Mendes’s [personal] connection to the material, he’s made something humane and nourishing, a picture of rare thoughtfulness and decency.

“Viewed from some angles, the film looks rather strange: as Hilary loses her grip on her well being, Empire of Light takes on surprising new dimensions. It’s a shock to see the movie break its dreamy spell, as Colman suddenly turns the volume of her performance way up. Mendes’ calm and steady film stays upright throughout these jarring thrashes — and as Stephen is violently thrashed at — building toward a conclusion of staggering poignance.

“What remains [at the end] is a deep and refreshingly heart-on-its-sleeve compassion, a humbled and awed appreciation for the majesty of learning from another person.”