Set in and around a cinema at the start of the 1980s, Empire of Light tackles several serious subjects, while at the same time being writer-director Sam Mendes’ love letter to film, as well as the Picture Palaces that show them.
The location is Margate, and our protagonist is Hilary (Olivia Colman), Duty Manager at the Empire Cinema, where she oversees screenings of The Blues Brothers, All That Jazz, Stir Crazy, and Being There, while also serving up sweets and snacks.
But having briefly spent some illuminating – and disturbing – time with Hilary, our route into the story is through Stephen (Michael Ward), a young, aspiring architect, who takes a job at the cinema when his university applications fail.
We see the theater through his eyes, meeting many of the Empire’s employees on his first day. And the place is filled with eccentric and engaging characters.
Meet the Empire team
Mr. Ellis (an unusually cruel Colin Firth) runs the cinema with an iron fist, though takes breaks from berating staff to have knee-tremblers with Hilary behind his wife’s back.
Neil is the polar opposite of his boss, seeing and hearing everything that goes on, but genuinely caring about his colleagues. As played by the hilarious Tom Brook, he’s likely to be your favoritve character come the film’s end.
While Norman (Toby Jones) is the lovable projectionist, who waxes lyrical about the sparks in his booth, and the fact that “nothing happens without the light.” Indeed, it all gets a bit Cinema Paradiso whenever Norman is onscreen, but sweetly so.
These characters are rich and real and bring the Empire to life. As does the film’s impressive production design, the cinema an art deco gem, but suitably distressed so you can practically smell the spilt Lilt and dropped popcorn. Lending Empire of Light a strong sense of nostalgia; one that’s complemented by filling the screen with greens and oranges and browns of the era.
What is Empire of Light about?
In spite of their age difference, Hilary and Stephen make an immediate connection, which becomes more intense when they spend time in the abandoned ballroom at the top of the building.
They date in secret, hitting the fairground, roller-disco, and beach in initially romantic fashion. But we’re one step ahead of Stephen, knowing Hilary lives her life in a Lithium-induced haze, following a spell in a psychiatric hospital.
All Stephen sees, however, is a good person, with a big heart, and he’s soon making her smile and laugh for the first time in an age. But that joy precipitates Hilary dropping her meds, wrestling with her mental health, and losing her way in dramatic style. Which isn’t the only struggle they face.
The rise of racism
Stephen is black, Hilary is white, and their relationship plays out against a backdrop of rising racial tension, both locally, and in Thatcher’s Britain at large.
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The Brixton riots and New Cross fire are referenced, while there’s something rotten in the air, with skinheads appearing all over town, and violence bubbling beneath Margate’s seemingly respectable surface.
That tension eventually explodes in the film’s standout sequence, a scene that shatters the perceived safety of the cinema, and proves to be as disturbing as it is heartbreaking.
Olivia Colman shines, as ever
There’s no such thing as a bad Olivia Colman performance, and here she excels, imbuing Hilary with sadness and fragility, but also – when required – with strength and dignity.
There are moments when the dialogue is a little clunky – with characters too frequently stating the obvious – but Colman is best in the quiet moments, speaking the unspoken through a look or glance. Indeed, the movie’s most touching moment is a wordless exchange she shares in a hospital waiting room.
Michael Ward matches her beat-for-beat, his Stephen warm, tender, funny, and sexy. He too has some clunky dialogue – concerning those race relations – but just about makes the words work. Following his stand-out performance in Steve McQueen’s Lover’s Rock, Ward both looks – and acts – like a true movie star.
The Verdict – Is Empire of Light good?
There are times when Empire of Light is a little heavy-handed. We can see the affect that Stephen has on Hilary, so probably don’t need the symbolism of him nursing a pigeon back to health in tandem.
But as a character study, it’s superb, with Hilary an entirely sympathetic character, dealing with an awful illness as best she can.
Sam Mendes shines a light on the issue in sensitive fashion, and while the film veers into sentimentality as Hilary’s friends rally to bring her out of the darkness and into the light, it never feels mawkish or unearned, with a no-nonsense Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score aiding the cause.
Empire of Light review score – 7/10
Meaning Empire of Light ultimately sends out a powerful message of hope, while also celebrating the healing power of cinema, most notably through the film’s lovely – and genuinely uplifting – climax.
Empire of Light was reviewed at the London Film Festival. The movie hits U.S. screens on December 9, 2022 while it release in the U.K. on January 13, 2023.