Empire of Light – movie review

Set in the English coastal town of Margate during the turbulent early 1980s, Empire of Light is a sensitive romantic drama.

Hilary (Olivia Colman) is manager of the local cinema, the Empire, situated across from the beach. She gets along well with her fellow workers, who include projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) and the diplomatic Neil (Tom Brooke), who sees all. The latest employee is a 20-something Black man, Stephen (Micheal Ward). Stephen lives with his mother Delia (Tanya Moodie) and has been subjected to racist taunts all his life.

Despite of an early flare-up, Hilary and Stephen hit it off. She is impressed by his gentle and caring nature. He wants to study architecture, but those plans have hit a roadblock. So he’s taken the job at the cinema.  Hilary struggles to rid herself of the seedy advances of her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), who runs the Empire. She also faces mental health issues, which have seen her hospitalised. Being off her meds results in severe mood swings, the manifestations of which are pivot points in Empire of Light.

The movie is an illuminating and insightful work from writer and director Sam Mendes (1917). It is a slow-burn piece, with several layers and interconnecting threads. It is poignant, distressing and, at times, delightful.

In an impressive performance as Hilary, Colman is ebullient, withdrawn and aggressive. Ward too displays nuance as Stephen, who carries on his shoulders the weight of being a Black man. Toby Jones comes into his own as the movie progresses, with Norman showcasing his knowledge of and passion for the projected image. In fact, cinema itself is a big part of the joy in this production. Mendes has made sure of that with his considered shot selection.

Also noteworthy is the period detail (plaudits to production designer Mark Tildesley) and cinematography by Roger Deakins (his fifth film with Mendes), whose craftsmanship is evocative.

I was intrigued and moved by Empire of Light, which displays a deep affection for the art of cinema and of storytelling.

Alex First


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