Empire of Light – Film Review

In 1981 The Empire Theatre stands tall on the coastline in Margate, England. Once a 4-screen powerhouse, it is now a shadow of its former self.

Middle-aged Hillary (Olivia Colman) lives a meagre existence as the cinema duty manager, having loveless daily quickies with her boss, Donald (Colin Firth). A young black man named Stephen (Michael Ward) begins to work at The Empire, and soon he and Hillary develop a close bond. 

In Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, an economic recession wreaks havoc and sets the stage for growing acts of racial discrimination. As Hillary and Steven’s affair grows more passionate, they face hardships from outside forces and from within as well. Hillary‘s mental health begins to wane threatening to consume her completely. Will these two unlikely lovers overcome that which stands in their way or will life tear them apart?

Empire of Light marks only the second writing effort from Oscar award-winning director Sam Mendes, his first solo screenplay. It also continues a recent trend by prolific filmmakers in crafting movies heavily inspired by their own passion for the arts or the cinema experience. For his part, Mendes has assembled an extremely talented crew of artists to work on his story on both sides of the camera.

Mendes is joined again by renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, their previous film ‘1917‘ leading to Deakins’ 2nd Oscar win. I think the aspect of this film I was most excited for was to see this master at work once again. I was not disappointed as Empire of Light is one hell of a gorgeous film. From the very start, his way of shooting The Empire Theatre lobby as its lights are turned on, injects life into the century old relic which is breathtaking. 

I really did appreciate the setting of a rundown movie theatre; the real-life art deco century old Dreamland Theatre being used as the film’s primary shooting location, and much of the heart of the movie comes from the old school projectionist Norman (Toby Stevens). From its busy cinema screens to its abandoned upstairs café, The Empire Theatre also quickly becomes a character itself.

Providing the film’s melancholic score are Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The duo continue their amazing work in film with their music here being quite different to what we’re used to hearing from them and their evocative score gives us an intimate view into Hillary‘s world.

Hilary is a complicated character whose behaviour can make her quite hard to swallow. Her mental health issues lead to her not simply dragging herself down but all of those around her as well. Colman puts her all into realising this character on screen. It’s heart-warming seeing her face light up as her relationship with Stephen elevates her drab lifestyle, only for it to come crashing down as the realities of their fling become apparent. 

Colman and Ward do share a certain chemistry together which makes their romance believable. However, it suffers from feeling quite rushed as do many aspects of Stephen’s story and the film as a whole. Stephen is likeable, charming, and full of life but is forced to face the rising extreme bigotry. In many ways, his story would be more interesting to tell than Hilary’s. The issue is in action, Stephen feels more like a plot device than a human character.

Sam Mendes is a magnificent director but unfortunately, I feel he’s not as great as a screenwriter. His previous writing effort with ‘1917’ benefited greatly from a constant on the go pacing that this Empire of Light lacks. While the love of cinema is at its core this is the only theme Mendes’ script is committed to.

From racism to mental health to late-life sexual awakening, none of these topics are given enough time to develop. Empire of Light brushes up on so many different themes all at once, it becomes muddled, and at its worst moments, painfully dull.

Empire of Light features magnificent work from all parties involved. A brilliant lead performance from the talented Colman and Deakins, astonishingly beautiful photography both standing out. Unfortunately, these can only assist Sam Mendes’ ambitious yet shallow script so far. The result begs the question of what could have been had a screenwriter of equal talent to the film’s other moving parts been brought aboard.

Empire of Light is in cinemas now.

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