'Empire of Light' Is All Sparkle, No Substance

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth

Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh

BY Jeff BulmerPublished Dec 8, 2022

Empire of Light opens with several shots of a large movie theatre, Empire. Lovingly tended to by its enthusiastic employees, Empire has immaculate carpets, regal stairs and spotless doors. At the centre of the building is a circular concession booth, with a veritable sea of popcorn under glass, flanked by various chocolates and candies. Empire is less a depiction of a real cinema and more a nostalgic rendering of what being in a movie theatre felt like to young film buffs who've never been able to recapture that magic.

In the nearly two-hour runtime, Empire of Light features a plot involving Empire's bid to host the premiere of Chariots of Fire, while a new wave of racism washes over the southern coast of Britain. Olivia Colman plays Hilary Small, a manager of Empire primarily interested in the aforementioned concession booth. Hilary, herself only recently returned from a leave of absence on account of her mental health, takes new hire Stephen (Micheal Ward) under her wing. Between the fall of 1980 and the summer of 1981, the two bond and have a brief affair. 

Through Hilary, Empire of Light explores society's the treatment of neurodivergent people. Despite being the most senior employee at Empire, her stay at a mental hospital makes her essentially unemployable elsewhere. While Hilary's passion for Empire is never in question, it's also clear that, if she were any less enthusiastic, the cinema would seem more like a prison. 

As a Black man in Britain, Stephen also feels trapped at Empire. He's constantly on the receiving end of overt racism, which none of his white coworkers are equipped to help him through. As tensions rise, eventually culminating in a riot organized by local skinheads, the world grows increasingly terrifying for Stephen, almost without warning. 

And yet the themes of racism and mental health seem incidental to Empire of Light, which is more concerned with how cool movies are and how good it is to talk about them. Stephen is a lifelong cinephile excited by the idea of working adjacent to the film industry. Meanwhile, although Hilary doesn't actually like films, she likes how happy they make people and enjoys her job more for it. The most notable supporting character, Norman (Toby Jones), is a projectionist who earnestly loves his job and is eager to share fun projectionist facts whenever he can. He easily has the most memorable lines in the movie, each being a trivia fact about the technical craft that goes into film. 

Nostalgia is reflected in nearly every aspect of Empire of Light. Sam Mendes's story, despite touching on discrimination in England at the time, cares more about the excitement of the English premiere of Chariots of Fire, and the script is overly focused on how amazing it is to talk about cinema. Roger Deakins's cinematography is beautiful, though seeming at times like a high-budget tourism ad for an English resort town. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross uses wistful piano melodies to evoke memories of "a simpler time." 

The problem with nostalgia is that it's always better in your head. The story and themes of Empire of Light are straightforward, but sparse. While there are plenty of individually beautiful audio and visual moments, these are all in service of a story that just doesn't leave a lasting impression. 

Empire of Light is a film made by clearly passionate people with every intention of communicating an intense love for cinema. And yet the result is overlong, mostly directionless and not that interesting. Like the movie theatre one visited as a kid, the memory of Empire of Light is much better than the actual thing.
(Searchlight Pictures)

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