Empire of Light takes place in a grand old movie theater that is now slowly fading away in early 1980s, with a loyal movie-loving staff still selling tickets and popcorn to dwindling audiences. You would expect such a movie to be a love letter to the movies, or at least old movie theaters, fondly recalling the glory days of actual film on reels and the magic of movies – maybe something in the style of Cinema Paradiso. Writer/director Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light does start out that way, but then it drifts off into something else, a plot touching on mental illness and racial tensions in the 1980s, and involving a May-October romance. The result is a rather muddled film, one that feels like it couldn’t quite decide what kind of movie it wanted to be.
Fans of old movies may be disappointed this is not the love letter to movies that the title suggests but Empire of Light does still offer some delights, chief among them its glorious cinematography by the great Roger Deakins and a touching performance by Olivia Colman as the theater’s middle-aged manager, with strong supporting performances including Michael Ward as a bright, good-hearted young staff member and Colin Firth as the callous theater owner. This is Sam Mendes’ first film since his WWI epic 1917, and the first one he wrote solo, during the Covid pandemic lock-down.
The fictional theater at the center of this, the Empire, is a big two-story structure near the sea in Margate, England. It is not a silent-era movie palace but a luxury entertainment complex from a later time, the post-war era when movie theaters got grand again and big-event movies had intermissions like plays, in an effort to entice audiences away from their tiny, new TV sets at home. In its heyday, the Empire’s huge building housed not just a glittering lobby and big screen main auditorium with plush seating, but an upstairs restaurant, a bar and additional movie screens – more than just a movie theater. However, at the time this story takes place, the grand dame has fallen on harder times, and although the lobby is still grand and the big screen main floor theater is still showing films, the smaller upstairs theaters, restaurant and bar are long closed, now fallen into disrepair, covered in dust, and home to pigeons.
The small, close-knit, movie-loving staff still wear snappy uniforms and cheerfully greet the theater’s few patrons, although there is a sense of a dimming future. The theater manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), relies for most things on his assistant manager/secretary Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), who really runs the place. Hilary is beloved by the other staff and she runs everything with shipshape precision, pitching in to help out with any needed task, from concessions to clean-up. Oddly, she never watches the movies. The long-time staff are almost like family, and chatting and having a little fun as they work, despite the sometimes rude public and their brusque manager. The perfectionist projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) keeps the movies rolling, fussing over the films, while the others handle the roles of ushers, concessionaires and ticket sellers.
We quickly learn Hilary is involved in an unsatisfying affair with the married, self-centered Mr. Ellis, a relationship with more than of whiff of sexual exploitation to it. When a new hire joins the crew, a bright young Black man named Stephen (Michael Ward), joins the crew, Hilary finds a spark of hope. Both curious and charming, Stephen is very taken with the old theater and Hilary’s knowledge of the grand old place as she gives him a tour, while Hilary herself is charmed by the appealing Stephen. An unlikely romance blooms, although we know it can’t last. Eventually, we learn that Hilary had a bout with mental illness some years back, although she seems recovered now.
A big event, a local red-carpet premier of Chariots of Fire complete with celebrities and speeches by local dignitaries, seems to offer a chance to turn things around for the fading theater and Mr. Ellis seizes on it. The staff is driven into a frenzy of cleaning and repairs, before the celebrity studded event.
The romance never makes a lot of sense, more born out of Hilary’s dreams and Stephen’s sweet nature. Olivia Colman’s Hilary is the central character and she is very moving as this sad, lonely woman. But the film seems take a rather sharp turn when it veers from the movie theater theme, introducing its mental illness theme built around Hilary, and then one about racism (something that was running high in Britain at the time this story takes place) built around Stephen’s experiences. It just seems like a lot to cram into one movie, although any one of these themes could be a fine subject for a separate movie. In this film, the whole mash-up never really gels into a convincing whole, despite the fine efforts of Olivia Colman and Michael Ward.
During the press conference after the screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mendes revealed that when he was writing this script during pandemic lock-down, he was drawn to thoughts of his own mother, who suffered from mental illness much like the central character Hilary, and moved by the murder of George Floyd, which brought back memories of a past-era’s racism in Britain.
For most of its running time, the film’s major focus is on Hilary, along with her mismatched love affair with Stephen, but Empire of Light does eventually return to the movie theater theme. That central story is book-ended with movie-themed scenes, and movie references are sprinkled throughout. Movie buffs might note that the Empire’s grand lobby looks a lot like the one in Inglorious Bastards and the decaying upstairs restaurant has a strong resemblance a major set in Blade Runner 2049. We see posters for films like Peter Seller’s Being There and Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, both indirect comments on the film’s themes, but we get no movie clips until near the end.
Actually, some of the best moments in the film are the movie-centric ones, often bits made more magical by Roger Deakins’ glowing camera work. One is a scene where Hilary and Stephen are on the roof of the theater at night watching fireworks, and another takes place in the dusty abandoned upper floors with white pigeons flying about. More charm comes with scenes of the staff going about their work and chatting as they clean up. These moments are warm, funny and have a real feel of what it is like to work in a movie theater, especially for those of us who did.
Among the best scenes are those with Toby Jones as the projectionist, who seems to think only in terms of how the film is going to look on screen and is blissfully aware of little else. One magical scene has the projectionist showing Stephen how to thread the projector and then how to switch projectors for the second reel. The beautifully shot scene has them working in the dark projection booth, with a magical moment when the beam of light shoots out to the screen, as dust dances in the light. Jones also adds little comic bits, like his belief that smoking is banned in the theater because it interferes with seeing the image clearly, oblivious to the safety issue.
Empire of Light is not the magical love letter to movies its title suggested, but it does still offer some enjoyment in Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and a glowing performance by Olivia Colman.