Empire of Light Review: Olivia Colman Shines in Sam Mendes Ode to Cinema

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

A cinema manager experiences the beauty and brutality of the world in Empire of Light

It’s something of a lovely thing that Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917) spent lockdown writing a film about the magic of in person cinema, delivering a love letter to our favourite past time with his latest feature Empire of Light. Set in Margate in the early 1980s it stars Oscar winner Olivia Colman in the starring role. Highlighted by cinematography from 1917 collaborator Roger Deakins, who has 2 Oscar wins and 12 nominations himself, you can be sure of a picture of quality.

Hilary (Colman) is the duty manager of the Empire Cinema on Margate seafront, a once glamorous building now starting to fade. She is clearly lonely, enduring long shifts at work for a boss (Colin Firth) who takes advantage of her, taking herself out to dances where she doesn’t have a partner and dining alone with a book. When young, handsome new staff member Stephen (Top Boy’s Michael Ward) starts at the Empire the two begin an unlikely romance. Stephen reminds her of all the joys of the world and encourages her to fall in love with the magic of cinema again.

But in ‘waking up to life’ and forsaking her normal boring routine Hilary also becomes more aware of the negatives around her that she had previously been numb to. She experiences a flare up in her own severe mental health issues. And in becoming close to Stephen sees the rising undercurrent of racism in their town as the National Front sweeps through 80s Britain.

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Empire of Light has been beautifully shot by Deakins, who of course has always had an eye for composing frames but in this film makes particularly gorgeous shots by playing with light. Streetlights filter through the curtains to dance across the ceiling. Dust motes float in the beam of the film projector. Neon lights glow against a beachfront twilit sky. It’s stunning stuff, and being intimately familiar with Margate (I grew up a few miles away) I can assure you the town has never looked this beautiful.

Roger Deakins stunning cinematography is a highlight in Sam Mendes' Empire of Light
Roger Deakins stunning cinematography is a highlight in Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light

The theme of light isn’t just visual, it plays into the sentiment of the whole film. The Empire’s particular projectionist Norman (played by Toby Jones) gives a stirring monologue about the brain chemistry of how cinema works, how the way we perceive light allows us to believe moving images; turning science into magic. It’s sappy but effective. (Jones is essentially just playing the same character he does in The Detectorists, only obsessed with film rather than metal detecting – I’m not mad about it.)

Michael Ward is excellent as Stephen, exuding a charisma and confidence that is well beyond his years whilst having a quiet capacity for kindness and a slowly boiling rage at his treatment by the local racists. It’s Olivia Colman who makes the whole film though, giving a ferocious performance that explodes from a seemingly quiet and downtrodden woman. This is by far her best role since The Favourite and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated for another Oscar this year.

The weakness of Empire of Light is that it just tries to do too much and therefore spreads itself too thin. The story of the cinema and the staff who run it is a very sweet one, the staff a lovable eccentric bunch who we want to know better. But in introducing the secondary plots about workplace sexism, mental health and racism, Mendes fails to give enough depth to any of them. The performances are brilliant but the result is a jumbled narrative that sometimes shifts tone quite jarringly. This is the first film he has written independently (after co-writing 1917) and could maybe have used a second pair of eyes to straighten it all out.

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Still, it’s an undeniably enjoyable two hours with beautiful imagery and another fantastic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. (They also scored Bones and All this year, another composition well worth a listen.) While Empire of Light may have a bit too much going on it manages to impart some lovely sentiments about new beginnings and finding light in the darkness. Propelled by a powerhouse central performance from Olivia Colman, I liked it a lot despite its flaws.

Empire of Light was reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is set for a cinema release on 13th January 2023

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