Empire of Light might not be the life-changing experience that it promises to be. But it still offers an escape that any film can only hope to.
WRITTEN BY ALEX GILSTON / JANUARY 12, 2023
Sam Mendes returns to the big screen with the 80s-set seaside drama Empire of Light. A love letter to the magic of cinema and how it connects us until it isn’t.
Empire of Light follows a group of employees at the Empire Cinema in Margate. The ticketing staff Neil and Janine, the reclusive projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), the owner Donald (Colin Firth), and the Duty Manager Hilary (Olivia Colman). Hilary’s daily routine is uprooted when she is introduced to the newest staff member Stephen (Micheal Ward) with whom she develops a connection. Empire of Light treads a familiar feeling, one we’ve all felt even more in a post-covid society. But Mendes doesn’t get much further than cinema connects us all. In trying to juggle multiple stories the emotional core of Empire of Light is smothered, leaving for some colder moments that are meant to prove otherwise. This applies to Mendes’ examination of certain themes as well as he tries to commit too much to the reel. He brings up complex issues like racism and mental health but never affords them the room they deserve to be explored properly.
Empire of Light isn't a wholly shallow affair though. It speaks to the urgency of the conversation around the cinema experience. In a scene toward the end, Hilary sits down to watch ‘Being There’. It’s one of the only emotionally affecting scenes in Empire of Light’s two-hour runtime, but it hits home the message that nothing in the world beats the feeling of sitting in a dark room with people you don’t know and watching that luminous projected picture. It also sheds some light on the importance of the connections we make, and not taking them for granted. If you can hold one for one second longer then do.
Olivia Colman gives a leading performance we've all come accustomed to in the past half a decade. She adds layers to the character of Hilary that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t be there. Micheal Ward also delivers alongside her with an optimistic turn. Empire of Light benefits from the masterful eye of cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins in his fifth collaboration with Sam Mendes. Every shot is as intricate as the dust falling through the light beaming out of the Empire cinema’s projector in one of the film’s most exquisite shots. Deakin’s magic is underpinned by a beautifully melancholic score provided by the sublime Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Empire of Light might not be the life-changing experience that it promises to be. But like the pictures that fill the auditorium screen in the seaside theater, it still offers an escape that any film can only hope to. If a screen full of people who don’t know each other can sit back and watch it and then go about their lives, then it might just have achieved a bit of what it wanted to.