Empire of Light review: "Sam Mendes' elegant homage to the movies"

Empire of Light
(Image: © Searchlight Pictures)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Mendes’ direction is superior to his script in an elegant homage to the movies that doesn’t quite manage to move.

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Both a love letter to cinema and the business of cinema itself, Sam Mendes’ latest operates on a far quieter register than his thunderous war epic 1917 and his two Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. Indeed, were its plot not so contingent on the workings of a rundown picture palace on the southeast coast of England and the decaying seaside town around it, Empire of Light might almost suit the stage.

There’s certainly the feel of a theatrical ensemble to the ragtag team of employees who keep the Empire cinema afloat. From pompous boss Colin Firth to Toby Jones’ persnickety projectionist and the various employees who collect ticket stubs and sweep up popcorn, its staff have the characterful whiff of Shakespeare’s so-called rude mechanicals. 

There is even a line from the Bard (“Find where light in darkness lies” from Love’s Labour’s Lost) adorning the cinema’s grandly imperious foyer. And there’s also a tragic heroine of sorts in Olivia Colman’s duty manager Hilary, whose solitary temperament is such that she has yet to see a single film at her long-time place of employment.

As 1980 rolls into 1981, however, a personable new recruit (Micheal Ward’s Stephen) arrives to shake things up, just as an invitation to host the regional premiere of Chariots of Fire gives the Empire a chance to put itself back on the map. A clandestine affair begins, one imperilled not only by Hilary’s mental frailty but also a rising tide of National Front sentiment sweeping the country. 

On the Empire’s two screens, classics of the period (The Blues Brothers, Raging Bull, and the like) offer a temporary respite from the social unrest outside. As Hilary’s grip on reality loosens, though, a moment of crisis becomes inevitable – one that affords Colman several standout scenes that will surely put her in the running for major awards.

As terrific as Colman is, however, the film around her has a schematic and engineered quality not too dissimilar from Jones’ prized projectors. (The broken-winged pigeon Stephen nurses back to health is a conspicuously clunky metaphor.) It could also be seen as reductive for the film to suggest that a life reliant on mood-stabilizing medication is one cut off from the full spectrum of emotional and romantic experience. 

Empire of Light reaches US cinemas December 9, 2022, and UK cinemas Januaray 13, 2022. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.

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Freelance Writer

Neil Smith is a freelance film critic who has written for several publications, including Total Film. His bylines can be found at the BBC, Film 4 Independent, Uncut Magazine, SFX Magazine, Heat Magazine, Popcorn, and more.