Searchlight Pictures has debuted the theatrical trailer for writer/director Sam Mendes’ new film “Empire of Light.” The first teaser, released on August 24, focused on Toby Jones waxing poetically about the visual science of film. This trailer, however, is more plot-specific, highlighting the core romance between Olivia Colman (Oscar winner for “The Favourite” in 2018) and Michael Ward (winner of the BAFTA Rising Star Award and turning 25 this Friday).
This 99-second preview mostly eschews the “power of the movies” hook, focusing on its lonely protagonist and the young man she falls for as they work together as a local cinema. There are hints of racial strife and star-crossed love amid the social turmoil of the 1980s in Southern England, but the focus is mostly on several critical pull quotes emphasizing what acclaim the picture has thus far received.
The film is part of the award season race, but early reviews have been mixed-negative (45% rotten and 6.1/10 on Rotten Tomatoes) with much of the early plaudits going to the performances and to Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography. The film would be a commercial longshot even with better reviews, as it’s an original character drama sans marquee stars and opening alongside higher-profile awards season contenders like “Babylon” and “The Whale.”
Nonetheless, it is also the kind of film that critics and movie lovers hope will continue to get made by Walt Disney under the Searchlight Pictures banner. Searchlight’s constant presence at the Oscars (including Best Picture wins for “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009, “12 Years A Slave” in 2014, “Birdman” in 2015, “The Shape of Water” in 2017 and “Nomadland” in 2021) is a key reason to keep the subdivision around.
The adult-skewing, R-rated drama also features Colin Firth and marks Mendes’ first film as a solo writer/director. It’s Mendes’ first since his World War I action drama “1917,” which earned rave reviews and grossed a spectacular $159 million domestic and $385 million worldwide just weeks before COVID shut down the global theatrical industry.
Mendes’ two earlier films, “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” both James Bond adventures, earned $1.1 billion in 2012 and $881 million in 2015, respectively. The awards-season entry is the only wide theatrical release on Dec. 9, opening between “Violent Night” on Dec. 2 and “Avatar: The Way of Water” on Dec. 16.