Dir.: Sam Mendes; Cast: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Hannah Onslow, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke; UK 2022, 119 min.
This drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times is underwhelming despite the deep humanity of its intentions and a brilliant British cast of Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Tom Brooke and Toby Jones. Director and first time script writer Sam Mendes certainly offers a flawless portrait of provincial England at the beginning of the 1980s but Empire of Light feels lethargic unfolding in a series of moving tableaux rather than a flowing feature.
The Empire is a cinema on Margate beachfront where troubled employee Hilary (Colman) has suffered a breakdown and is barely coping with the unwelcome sexual advances of married cinema manager Donald (Firth), and a much younger addition to the team Stephen (Ward), who has fallen for her. Hilary is somehow in thrall to Donald and their conflict comes to head on the cinema’s first night screening of Chariots of Fire, when Hilary takes to the stage and upsets Donald by reading an Auden poem and revealing to his wife what has been going on for years.
During a National Front rally, the mob then storms the cinema, seriously injuring Stephen, who is black, and landing him in hospital where he reconnects with Ruby, his first girlfriend, and later secures a place at Bristol to study architecture. The other three main members of the cinema staff: sensitive Neil (Brooke), cranky projectionist Norman (Jones) and usherette Janine (Onslow), in her “Rocky Horror Show” outfit, barely get a look in as characters.
Despite the rich tapestry of the storyline and its exciting potential, Empire overstays its welcomes in a torpid two hours, Mendes focussing far two much on nostalgic detail which robs the film of momentum and much needed dramatic heft. Colman’s soulful performance and the support of the underused and talented cast struggles to take centre stage but strangely Roger Deakins’ rapturous camerawork becomes the focus of Mendes’ mournful semi-autobiographical recollection. What could have been a landmark film about the healing nature of music, cinema and community ends up as another decent, but run-of-the-mill production. AS
EMPIRE OF LIGHT in UK and IRISH CINEMAS from 9 January 2023