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‘Empire of Light’: Olivia Colman’s Golden Globe nomination was no surprise — take heed for Oscars

Predicting this year’s Golden Globe nominations came with the added challenge of assessing how recent shakeups would affect voting patterns. If the “new and expanded” Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) was anything like that of old, it was clear Sam Mendes’ romantic drama “Empire of Light” would make some sort of showing, and it did. Olivia Colman nabbed a nomination for Best Film Drama Actress, a category competitive enough that Danielle Deadwyler, who won the Gotham Awards’ gender-neutral acting category over not just two of her main Oscar rivals—Cate Blanchett (“TÁR”) and Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”) — but also Best Actor favorite Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”), was snubbed for her stirring work in “Till.” 

SEE ‘Empire of Light’ composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on creating a ‘wondrous’ piano score [Exclusive Video Interview]

“Empire of Light” has been underestimated as an awards player since premiering to lukewarm reviews in Telluride and Toronto. Based on that response, it hasn’t been surprising to find it absent from the crop of films critics organizations have recognized thus far. The HFPA’s decision to nominate Colman for her wonderful performance is the film’s first major appearance this awards season (it also got Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design nominations from the Satellites). 

She plays a lonely manager of a coastal British cinema in 1980/81. Numbed by a Lithium prescription and regularly exploited for sexual favors by her boss (Colin Firth), she finds unexpected solace in the arrival of a young new employee (Micheal Ward). Mental health challenges and racial unrest complicate their May-December romance.

SEE ‘Empire of Light’ cinematographer Roger Deakins: ‘You’re trying to create a reality that all fits together as a whole’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Roger Deakins’ cinematography, the way he shoots the theater where most of the film is set, is impossible to resist if you’re a cinephile and/or involved in the movie distribution business—the  groups which pretty much constitute these voting bodies. And what could be a more salient message less than two years after movie theaters reopened than the majesty of movie theaters? 

“Empire of Light’s” nomination is a surprise only to those who confuse Twitter with actual industry members. The HFPA may have doubled in size, but this is still the organization that awarded Mendes Best Director in 2020 and nominated 2008’s “Revolutionary Road” for Best Film Drama when practically no other group did. The real shocker is that “Empire of Light” didn’t perform better. In addition to Colman’s deserved nod, the movie should’ve gotten in for Best Score and still could at the Oscars (our combined odds rank Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross eighth). And if you’re making a conservative bet on the Best Picture lineup’s up-for-grabs tenth slot, “Empire of Light” is as good as any (it’s currently in 20th place).

SEE ‘Empire of Light’ trailer: Sam Mendes’ heartfelt charmer could bring Olivia Colman back to Oscars

While it made (relative) sense to question Colman’s chances for an Oscar nomination—it’s a competitive race in an overall competitive awards cycle—doubting her viability in the Globes’ Best Drama Actress category, where she wouldn’t be facing competition from Margot Robbie (“Babylon”) and Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”) seemed less justifiable. Our odds presciently had her in fifth. The argument that “everyone’s tired of Olivia Colman” just doesn’t track with what we’ve seen over and over again. Organizations like the HFPA and AMPAS really don’t mind playing favorites, and let’s keep in mind that this year’s frontrunner for Best Actress is Blanchett, who’s looking at a third win. Colman’s Golden Globe nod for “Empire of Light” marks the British actress’ sixth since 2017.

She’s luminous (no pun intended) in “Empire of Light,” displaying the sort of range that’s made her an awards season mainstay in just a few years. Lethargy, tenderness, and mania broadly encapsulate the array of volumes she has to play, and she gracefully transitions between each, creating a fully realized character in whom we remain invested. Sometimes a performance is enough to lift a movie; Colman’s in “Empire of Light” is one of them. 

PREDICT the 2023 Oscar nominees through January 24

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