Review: Empire of Light

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The duty manager of a seaside cinema, who is struggling with her mental health, forms a relationship with a new employee on the south coast of England in the 1980s.

Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes penned this poignant story about human connection during the pandemic, based partly on his own life experience, and it shows in the tender care and exquisite way this film is constructed.  Much of the promotion related to the film has focused on the the Empire cinema setting, but to me, although a powerful metaphor for the escapism associated with going to the movies, it is the backdrop.  The film, set in the 1980s, is about Hilary (Olivia Colman), the front-of-house manager, who forms a romantic bond with a much younger employee, Stephen (Michael Ward) in the midst of the understanding and attitudes towards mental illness and race-based violence at the time.

In the hands of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, the physical cinema in Margate used for the exteriors and the art direction in the accompanying interior sets easily transports a viewer into the magical, nostalgic, quaint seaside setting.  The camera moves quietly, often static allowing the actors to showcase their skill, drawing the viewer in as the story develops.  And act they did! Colman portrays Hilary as self-aware and yet vulnerable and helpless. I found myself reflecting on whether the whole top floor of the cinema, and the romantic relationship between with Stephen only existed in Hilary’s mind.  It’s something I would prefer to wonder about, rather than know for certain.

If you are a fan of Mendes and Deakins combo (Road to Perdition, Skyfall, 1917), you’re in for a treat.  I particularly like the way Deakins shoots characters looking out a window.  You can see all the emotion in their faces while the reflection lets you see what has their gaze.  The film has a great score by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross.  Their collaboration on the score for The Social Network in 2010 won them an Oscar.

More info & links:

  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Cast: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth
  • Empire of Light on IMDB
  • Empire of Light Official Website

Jith Paul

Web Designer, Editor, Film Reviewer

Jith Paul is an independent filmmaker based in Ottawa. While pursuing a career as a software engineer, he decided to take a detour to follow his passion for film and filmmaking, establishing Treepot Media in 2010.

He is a co-founder of the Ottawa Canadian Film Festival, and editor of the film613 blog.

When he is not busy fighting crime, he coordinates the efforts of an international team of software developers and service providers as the Team Lead for Digital Development at CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel.