Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Monica Dolan, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke
Released: March 2, 2023
Grade: B

Empire of Light

Above all else, Empire of Light is worth recommending for its homage to a pre-digital world of cinema.  It’s the kind of movie which will help enlighten future generations about what went on behind the scenes.  Set in the year 1981, it revolves around a passionate, hard-working team at a slightly run-down, two-screen movie theatre that overlooks the seaside in southern England.

Writer-director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) acknowledges and celebrates the smallest of details.  We see Janine (Onslow) get up on a ladder to painstakingly change the large black letters on the front lightbox to announce when a new movie is screening.  We see the experienced Norman (Jones) descend the back stairs and take custody of precious film reels when the delivery driver arrives.  We see staff greet customers as they enter the theatre and tear the small ticket stub into two pieces – one for the patron to keep, and one to be reconciled later against box-office receipts.  We even see customers buying popcorn and Maltesers for reasonable prices!

Yeah, I know I’m biased given my love for cinema but it’s hard not to feel sentimental watching these scenes and realising just how much has changed, for better or worse, over the past four decades.  Mendes and his crew found the rustic Dreamland cinema in Margate, which opened back in 1935, and transformed it into the fictional Empire Theatre we see in this movie.  It feels like every nook and cranny, from the gorgeous front windows to the dingy staff room, has been perfectly captured by acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (1917).  The soothing, piano-laden music score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) adds to film’s reflective mood.

Unfortunately, the fantastic production values aren’t matched by an equally fantastic script.  Drawing from the mental health issues of his own mother, Mendes has centred the story on Hilary (Colman), a middle-aged woman who serves as the Empire’s long-time duty manager.  It’s a job she enjoys… perhaps too much so.  As a single woman who lives alone and has next-to-no friends, she pours all her energy into work – smiling to regular customers, working late nights, and doing whatever the dictatorial boss (Firth) requires.

Hilary is a complex character and Colman’s continually changing persona is reminiscent of her Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s The Lost Daughter.  That was a better film though.  Knowing only limited information about her backstory, I struggled to reconcile her actions and understand her emotional weaknesses.  The other featured player is Micheal Ward (Blue Story) as Stephen, a black staff member who is subjected to abuse and discrimination on a daily basis.  Like the rest of the supporting cast, with an emphasis on Toby Jones, it feels like we’re only scratching the surface with Stephen.

Not quite living up to its potential, Empire of Light captures the era better than the characters.