Film Review: ‘Empire of Light’ (2022)

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Stars: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth
Director: Sam Mendes
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

“This whole place is for people who want to escape.”

Sam Mendes – one of Britain’s finest filmmakers – returns to the big screen, his first post-Lockdown film, with a fitting tribute to life and cinema in Empire of Light. Moving on from the blockbuster of Bond and the one-shot-spectacle of 1917, Mendes’ latest picture details the not-so-bright life on the coast during the early 80s of Thatcher’s Britain. 

Olivia Colman stars as Hilary, the Duty Manager of the Empire Cinema in Margate. Living with bipolar disorder, she leads a life which entails a glum office affair with Colin Firth’s Donald (the General Manager), and a prescription of lithium from an uninterested doctor. Truly as miserable as 80s Britain. When new employee Stephen (Michael Ward) enters the mix of cinematic misfits, Hilary takes him under her wing and gives him the tour of the theatre. Immediately, a bond and connection is established. A relationship begins. Despite this new found happiness, Hilary’s mental health regresses and takes a turn for the worst, all while Stephen experiences racist abuse on a frequent basis. Can their relationship last?

Empire of Light presents multiple taboos – be it historic or contemporary – ranging from black and white relationships, age gap relationships, workplace affairs, and mental health. Though, despite this platform for commentary, there is a lack of anything strong. Ultimately, this film attempts to mean something, to say something, but without actually doing it. In not worth willingly addressing the issues it has a platform for, Empire of Light could have instead just been a gritty-as-anything kitchen sink drama. Despite this, Olivia Colman and Michael Ward are both excellent in their respective roles. Individually and collectively, they excel to the fullest. Throughout multiple occassions, the experiences and emotions of these two characters can be so tragic and damming, a strong connection of guilt and sympathy is established by the audience. At times, Empire of Light hits hard, then you hurt and cry.

Fully equipped with the cinematography of Roger Deakins, Empire of Light is – as justifiably expected – a beautifully shot film. There is a clear light in the dark context. However, which is the more beautiful of the two: the old-fashioned setup of how a cinema used to be, or the ways in which it is presented? Further to this, is there a revisionism of how cinema used to be?

Of course, this may very well depend upon the individual experience of cinema-going back in the late 70s and early 80s, but in Empire of Light, the titular cinema – apart from the condemned pigeon-infested rooms – almost seems too clean, or nice. For what was a shitshow out on the streets in England at the time (and not too different now), the cinema almost doesn’t completely fit the bill. If anything, it should have been filfier, sleazier, dirty, and more corrupt.    

However, revisionist or not, the old way of exhibition is a delightful aspect to this film, even wholesome. A true love letter to cinema, though potentially only to be read by those of an elder generation or serious film enthusiasts. Ultimately, this is clearly a Sam Mendes passion project. Though an entertaining film with great scenery, the execution of its existence could (and probably should) have been something much deeper and darker.

Empire of Light can now be watched in UK cinemas.

3 Stars


For John.

This article’s featured image: By Source, Searchlight Pictures, Fair Use

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