Empire of Light – Movie Review

Empire of Light

  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Writer: Sam Mendes
  • Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke

Grade: C

The ever-reliable Toby Jones, playing the longtime projectionist of the fictional Empire Cinema, opines that our brains perceive static frames of film as moving images which “creates an illusion of life.” Perhaps it’s a little harsh to say this sentiment could be an accurate tagline to sum up Empire of Light, writer and director Sam Mendes’ latest film, but there’s a lifelessness to the proceedings that holds the film back from greatness. Mendes has now written the screenplays to his two most recent films, and neither one has particularly struck as impactfully as he likely intended. Indeed, Empire of Light shares a handful of similarities with 1917: elegantly crafted production design, stunning visuals, and powerful performances, but a lackluster script that only scratches the surface of who the characters really are.

1917’s biggest issue was its largely unknowable characters as they rushed along from place to place. With Empire of Light, Mendes packs too many ideas, too many issues into the film to really resonate beyond its runtime. The film centers on the above-mentioned Empire Cinema, a beautifully rendered old-school movie house in the United Kingdom during the early 80’s. Those obsessed with film and film history mark the passage of time by when movies were released, and Empire of Light subtly does so by its marquee, first showing landmark films like Blues Brothers and All That Jazz, and later Chariots of Fire and Being There. Yet, for a film set largely at a movie theater, it’s surprising how little the movies actually play into its plot, or its themes.

Empire of Light; Searchlight Pictures

Our protagonist is Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), the lonely, depressed house manager of the Empire, who does what she can to get through her daily life, but something is clearly missing. Then Stephen (Micheal Ward) begins working at the Empire as a ticket taker, and the two strike up a casual romance. There’s a particularly lovely scene early on when Hillary takes Stephen to the abandoned upper floors of the theater to show him around, and Stephen nurses a pigeon with a broken wing back to health (in case you couldn’t get the metaphor, Hillary is the pigeon). Naturally, Hillary’s mood brightens when the two of them are together, despite the hush-hush nature of their relationship. This is the early 80’s after all, and interracial romance isn’t exactly welcome in the English countryside.

This angle is one of the Empire of Light’s highlights, but Mendes throws in a left-field subplot about Hillary’s mental health in the second act that could be almost entirely removed without changing much of the film overall. Colman carries the film as she always does; that she’s able to navigate the sometimes bizarre moments that the script asks of her is a testament to her status as one of our best actors today. And Ward ably holds his own (this is your annual reminder to watch the Lovers Rock installment of Small Axe), even if his character is shaded a little too thinly. Roger Deakins, Mendes’ regular collaborator, shoots the film with the same reliable beauty that’s made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after craftsmen.

Empire of Light; Searchlight Pictures

My first job was at a movie theater when I was a senior in high school. One of my favorite memories while working there (though there weren’t many) was going on the roof on the 4th of July to watch fireworks, as Hillary and Stephen do on New Years Eve. Empire of Light isn’t the “love letter to cinema” that you would initially believe. In fact, the theater setting is rather incidental to the story overall. One could argue that the theater is a place that brings people together – even in divided times like what we see in the film – but so does birthday cake, for example. There are stretches where Empire of Light is a great film. And Sam Mendes is still a wonderful director. But, if anything is to be gleaned from the experience, it’s that he should go back to working with someone else’s material.

Empire of Light was viewed as a Special Presentation screening at the Heartland International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release the film on December 9.


  • Early reactions since the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival are not positive, but Mendes is a beloved filmmaker from the Academy, and 1917 was essentially the runner-up for Best Picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sneaks in as one of the Best Picture nominees.
  • The same goes for Olivia Colman, who whole-heartedly deserves a Best Actress nomination, though she’s unlikely to win.
  • Cinematography is going to be a tough category to crack this year, but when you’re a mainstay like Roger Deakins, you can find your way to a nomination.
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross rarely miss with their film scores, but I would be surprised to see this make the nominees, lovely as it is.
  • Mark Tildesley’s production design is really lovely here, especially everything involving the Empire theater. In a year when several high-profile films are either centered around filmmaking or Hollywood or both, I sadly don’t expect a nomination to come for Tildesley.

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