‘Empire Of Light’ review: Sam Mendes’ misty-eyed homage to the movies

Empire Of Light

If everyone keeps telling us the cinema industry is in trouble, we might actually start believing it. Despite streaming and COVID and those pesky kids’ attention spans, cinema is actually doing better than ever – with the number of screens in the UK now topping the heyday of the 1950s. Nostalgia, though, is a bitch.

Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917) casts a crumbling picture palace as his main star in Empire Of Light – a beautifully shot, clumsily written drama that’s wrung through with empty tragedy lamenting an era that never really existed. Set in a sombre 1980s seaside town where everyone’s problems are all just a box of popcorn away from being solved, the film tackles all the big themes at once without really engaging with any of them.

The Empire Cinema is the faded jewel of the south coast, and middle-aged duty manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) is the faded jewel of the Empire Cinema. Spending her lunch hours suffering through a joyless affair with her boss (Colin Firth), and her days off downing Lithium to get through her solo ballroom dance classes, Hilary desperately needs a friend.

Empire Of Light
Micheal Ward in ‘Empire Of Light’. CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures

Luckily for her, new usher Stephen (Michael Ward) turns up at just the right time. Unluckily for him, he’s young, Black and living in Thatcherite Britain. As Hilary and Stephen’s forbidden romance starts to blossom, Mendes starts heaping on the BAFTA bait. Cue the heavy-handed metaphors about the magic of cinema (and a little orphan pigeon with a broken wing that lives in the roof…) and the surface skimming nods to intergenerational trauma, loneliness, depression and real-world racism. By the time Toby Jones’ grouchy old projectionist starts offering little gems of twinkly-eyed wisdom, it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing makes a far better trailer than it does a film.

Which is shame, as it’s easily one of the best-looking films in years. Elegantly shot by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (1917, Skyfall and most of Mendes’ other films), the real Dreamland Cinema in Margate becomes something mythic here – glowing in such a way that genuinely deserves to be seen on the biggest, most romantic old screen you can find. The performances all soar, too, as does the intricately elegiac score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – all of which make Mendes’ hammy, deeply conservative script seem even more embarrassing in comparison.

Released just a few weeks before The Fabelmans in the UK, Steven Spielberg’s own “ode to cinema”, Empire Of Light has an especially short shelf life before everyone realises the kind of film they could be watching instead. Where Spielberg’s film unpicks nostalgia to confront his own past, Mendes sews up everything meaningful in a blanket of sentiment that never feels real. This isn’t anyone’s personal story – it’s just the most filmable bits of a fake past, awkwardly, beautifully, pointlessly patched together at 24-frames per second.


  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Starring: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth
  • Release date: January 9 (UK)

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