Review by Chiara Gregor
With Empire of Light (2022), Sam Mendes has attempted two things many filmmakers have before him. Firstly, to write and direct a project themselves, and secondly, to make a film in and about the film theatre. Throughout cinematic history, the theatre has been a favoured locality on screen, as a setting for chance encounters between movie-goers, or as a portrait of the people working in the cinema, think of Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr (Buster Keaton, 1924), or Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936). The magic of the cinema as a space of interaction as well as introspection makes for a compelling point of departure. Empire of Light, unfortunately, tries to go far with this emotional outset but ends up falling short. The film is set in an old, beautiful movie theatre on the south coast of England during the 1980s. The film couples its dramatic, intimate portrait of the middle-aged duty manager Hillary (Olivia Colman) and the love story between her and her younger coworker with topics of racism, sexism and mental health.
Hillary lives a solitary life and is having an affair with her married boss, played by Colin Firth. She gets along well with her diverse, likeable group of coworkers, each with individual quirks, a wholesome microcosm of community and joviality. When Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the cinema as ticket usher, Hillary’s life begins to gain new momentum. Within the two-hour runtime of the film, the protagonists’ relationship manoeuvres their age-gap, Hillary’s nascent mental illness, as well as racism directed against Stephen, framed through Hillary’s white perspective as an ignorant witness. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who worked with Mendes on 1917 (2019), Empire of Light dwells on textures and colours, creating a tactile dimension of the old, pompous cinema with its satin and draped curtains, and the small town with its seaside promenade.
Although it is an obvious and not entirely original appeal for the preservation of theatres in the age of streaming services, especially since the pandemic, Mendes’ love letter to the cinema works. Unfortunately, the mixture of political and emotional messages of the film falls flat: Mendes’ attempt to bridge nostalgia and optimism for the future reads insincere at times, and no amount of texture, shimmering fireworks or recitation of classical poetry can gloss over the superficiality of the cliché-heavy script. Still, Empire of Light lives off of undoubtedly great performances from a stellar cast, and, of course, its most compelling character, the cinema itself.