Empire of Light Review


A Beautiful Ode To The Cinema, Its People And The Whole Industry

By Liselotte Vanophem

Earlier in his career, British writer/director Sam Mendes chose mainly franchised films such as “ Spectre” and “ Skyfall”, but in the last few years, he has been focussing more on personal movies. In 2019, he co-wrote and directed “ 1917 “, a film inspired by Mendes’ grandfather’s experiences in WWI. Now, he’s, again, making an extremely personal movie. “Empire of Light” is not only his first solo screenplay, but it’s also a splendid ode to his own creative industry. So let’s get personal with “Empire of Light”, shall we?

The movie is set in the early 1980s in the seaside town of Margate (Kent). Empire, an art deco cinema, is led by Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) and screens films back then. Think of movies such as “Stir Crazy” and “Raging Bull”. While the theatre isn’t very popular, the people working there are trying to do everything they can to keep the magic of film alive.

Projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) shows the audience how the projector works, what makes the combination of light and vision so great and how films can (temporarily) relieve people from darkness. Someone’s who not so keen on watching a movie, despite working at the cinema, is duty manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman). She’s a workaholic, and her dedication to the theatre results in a lonely life (despite her denial).

Her life changes entirely due to the arrival of the new cinema employee Stephen (Micheal Ward). Despite dealing with the prejudices towards young black men, Stephen is full-of-light and has a lot of charm and wit. From then onwards, Mendes allows each character to develop, grow and give the audience an poignant inside into their life.

In this movie, Mendes wants to show the excellent contrast between the beauty of cinema and the horrible times each character is going through and to pull that off; he works with his friend/cinematographer Roger Deakins (“ Blade Runner 2049”, “ Sicario “). And again, Deakins delivers astonishing work!

He decides to leave out special effects, ultra-modern technology and over-the-top techniques. Instead, he focuses on the more subtle side of filmmaking. The use of wide lenses and the absence of camera movements allow the audience to get to know the characters very well. It feels like you’re at the Empire where every event unfolds right before your eyes.

This stunning cinematography is accompanied by the very delicate, simplistic, soft and effective score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who worked together on “Bones and All”, “ Waves “). The score mainly consists of piano, strings and human voices and ensures that the personal and up-close feeling is never overpowered by the music.

What makes “Empire of Light” as effective as it is, is the magnificent cast. Colman (“ The Father”, “ The Favourite”) gives a highly devastating performance as Hilary, and every time her character encounters Donald, the acting becomes even more heartbreaking. Jones (“ The Wonder”, “ Atomic Blonde “) is one of those actors who emerges himself fully in his character, and this time is no different. While we don’t see much of Norman, which is a shame, his love for cinema and the projector is coming through very effectively thanks to Jones’s passionate and fantastic performance.

Ward (“Beauty”, “ The Old Guard “), who will undoubtedly make a name for himself soon, puts on an excellent performance as Stephen. He ensures that you feel every gut-wrenching encounter with 1980s racism and every wonderful meeting with Hilary in a very exquisite way.

“Empire of Light” is certainly far from perfect. Donald doesn’t bring much to the story, despite a beautiful performance by Firth (“ Supernova”, “ Kingsman: The Golden Circle “). There are too many unfinished and loose ideas, mainly used as filling. This movie should have ended sooner, and the final scenes could have easily been left out. It would have had the same touching impact without the dragging feeling.

Despite its flaws, “Empire of Light” is a gorgeous love letter to cinema and the people working in the industry. If you go to the movies regularly, you know what an emotional experience every film provides you with. This latest Mendes one is no different, thanks to the stunning cinematography, subtle score and impressive performances.

Originally published at https://www.ocmoviereviews.com.