Empire of Light (2022)

January 6th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Sam Mendes; Cast: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Hannah Onslow, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke; UK 2022, 119 min.

This noble tribute to the golden days of the picture palace and the power of human connection is underwhelming despite the deep humanity of its intentions. A brilliant British cast of Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Tom Brooke and Toby Jones are the motley crew of characters trying to keep their cinema afloat in the seaside town of Margate, where the chance to show a regional premiere of Chariots of Fire gives hope to a movie theatre that is well past its glory days. Director and first time script writer Sam Mendes certainly offers a flawless visual portrait of provincial England at the beginning of the 1980s but his script lets him down, lurching between lethargic melancholy and over intense melodrama unfolding in a series of episodes rather than a cohesive and 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 unhappily married cinema manager Donald (Firth), and a much younger addition to the team, Stephen (Ward), who falls for her as the two begin a torrid affair. But after getting close to Hilary, Stephen, who is black, rekindles his relationship with his first girlfriend Ruby, destabilising Hilary’s fragile stage of mind. 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 she then trounces him by reading an Auden poem, before spilling the beans.

During a National Front rally, the mob then storms the cinema, seriously injuring Stephen and landing him in hospital. The other three main members of the cinema staff: the sensitive ticket manager 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.

Instead, Mendes concentrates far two much on nostalgic detail and the negative aspects of Hilary’s condition which robs the film of momentum and the chance for the other characters to play a real part. Strangely Roger Deakins’ rapturous camerawork becomes the focus of Mendes’ mournful semi-autobiographical recollection, upstaging even Colman’s soulful performance and the support of the underused and talented cast who struggle with their underwritten parts. What could have been a landmark film about the healing nature of cinema, music and community ends up as another decent, but rather unbalanced production where politics instead of people takes centre stage. AS

EMPIRE OF LIGHT in UK and IRISH CINEMAS from 9 January 2023

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