review – empire of light

Usually when you have an award-winning director, award-winning actors, and an award-winning cinematographer, you’ll get a great movie. I say “usually” because nothing is a sure thing. Award winning director Sam Mendes, award-winning actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins made a movie called “Revolutionary Road” a few years ago. Not a bad movie, but not a great movie either. The same can be said for “Empire of Light” which is also directed by Sam Mendes, cinematography by Roger Deakins and stars Olivia Coleman and Micheal Ward. 

The story is set at a two-screen movie theater in a seaside town in England in the early 1980s. Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is the lonely theater manager. Most nights after work she goes home alone, eats alone, lives alone, and then gets up the next morning to go back to work. She tries somewhat unsuccessfully to socialize. She joins a dance class but needs someone to assign her a partner to dance with. She also has trouble bantering with the other employees at the theater. 

That changes with the arrival of new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward). On one of the first days he’s working, he joins Hilary when she goes to the roof of the movie theater to watch the fireworks. On another day, Hilary shows Stephen the closed off upper floors of the movie theater (it used to be a 4-screen theater with a restaurant and bar, but the upper floors of the building have been closed for years). Hilary and Stephen become friends and eventually lovers, escaping to the closed off restaurant to be alone. 

However, things get in the way of their relationship. Stephen, who is black, has problems with racists in town. He hopes for a life beyond the small town where he can go to school and study architecture. Hilary is struggling with a mental illness. After spending time with Stephen, Hilary decides to stop taking her lithium medication. 

This movie has beautiful cinematography of an aged but still great movie theater. The movie theater is real but, according to an interview with Sam Mendes, it wasn’t showing movies when they first found it. He said the auditorium was a bingo hall. So, they restored it to film the movie. Also, he said that the theater lobby shown in the movie is not the real lobby. The lobby in the real building was too small and dark so they built the lobby seen in the movie somewhat close to the actual movie theater so the view of the street from inside the lobby looks the same. 

It also has some haunting shots of Hilary’s apartment as her illness gets worse. She stays in her apartment for days not answering the door or the phone. 

The cast, which also includes Toby Jones as the movie theater projectionist, Colin Firth as the movie theater head manager, and Tanya Moodie as Stephen’s mother, are all very good in their parts with Olivia Coleman being the standout character. She is incredible during a scene where there is a world premiere screening at the movie theater. 

The biggest problem I have with the movie is the story. It’s the first time that director Sam Mendes wrote a movie on his own (he was a co-writer of his last movie – “1917”). This movie has three separate themes. 

The first is inspired by Sam Mendes’ mother who had an illness like Olivia Colemans character in this movie. In the movie you watch the illness slowly get worse. After an argument with Stephen, she doesn’t show up for work. The other employees tell Stephen about the time when Hilary was “gone for a few months” in the past. 

The second theme is based on the racial climate in the early 1980s in England. There’s one scene where there’s a riot on the street in front of the theater. The rioters eventually break into the theater and beat up Stephen. 

The third theme is the theater. I must admit that I have a soft spot for movies about movie theaters (“Cinema Paradiso” is one of my all-time favorite movies). The movie theater where much of the movie is set is a beautiful looking building. This is the second movie that came out recently that show a beautiful movie theater and talks about the “persistence of vision” – which is how movies are projected (the other movies is “The Fabelmans”). 

So, the story sometimes jumps from one subject to the other. There’s a scene about Hilary, then it switches to a different theme for a scene about Stephen, and then it switches to the movie theater, then it goes back to Hilary. 

Overall, I still recommend the movie because of the excellent cinematography, the incredible acting, and the (mostly) real movie theater where most of the story takes place. However, it’s a marginal recommendation because of the story which somewhat stutters due to the frequent changing of the movies theme. 

I give it 7 out of 10.