Empire of Light review – A cautionary tale ★★★☆☆

8 mins read

‘Neglected and slightly frayed at the edges’ is a phrase which could apply to multiple elements of Empire of Light, directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty), who has also written the script. 

It’s 1980, turning into 1981 in Margate: the Tories are in power; the welfare state is crumbling; joy is in short supply. A cinema, the ‘Empire’ of the title in which most of the narrative is set, has seen better times. 

Into this world of broken dreams and lonely lives comes Stephen (Micheal Ward – Top Boy), a young black man who has already known disappointment. Olivia Colman’s (The Crown, Heartstopper) Duty Manager, the aptly named Hilary Small, shows Stephen the crumbling cinema building, with its abandoned screens, and an unused ballroom that has become a refuge for the local pigeons.

Michael Ward in Empire of Light
Micheal Ward as Stephen, with Olivia Colman as Hilary. Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

In other hands, this would become a story about restoring the cinema’s infrastructure through the efforts of its staff and the involvement of the local community. Instead, Mendes chooses to scatter plot threads, some of which are abandoned without satisfactory resolution.

These multiple plot threads mean that the film cannot decide what story it is trying to tell. Are we focused on Colman’s Hilary and her mental health concerns? Or Micheal Ward’s Stephen and his experiences as a victim of racism? Should we focus on the trials and tribulations of the ensemble cast of characters? All of these are problematic in one way or another.

Some of this discomfort arises from Colin Firth’s (Mamma Mia, Operation Mincemeat) Donald Ellis, the cinema’s manager, who encapsulates the seediness of the era as he engages in an affair with Hilary that is furtive, seemingly unsatisfying to Hilary, and which demonstrates a distinct lack of consent.

Michael Ward and Olivia Colmon in Empire of Light
Micheal Ward as Stephen and Olivia Colman as Hilary. Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Hilary’s other concerns are hinted at throughout the first hour or so of the film’s running time, but are portrayed in a clichéd manner. It is as if Hilary’s very understandable disappointment with life, and her resultant anger, cannot be allowed to just be. It comes across as somewhat sexist – as a woman not being allowed to express feelings which make men uncomfortable.

Stephen’s experiences appear to focus solely on how aware he is of other characters’ racist attitudes towards him. An early foreshadowing of the denouement of Stephen’s arc shows a small gang of white skinheads verbally abusing him.

Toby Jones and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light
Toby Jones as Norman, with Olivia Colman as Hilary. Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

As for the ensemble, the scattergun approach to story-telling means that Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Captain America: The First Avenger) as projectionist Norman merely hangs around the cinema’s staff break room until midway through the second act of the film, before being afforded an intriguing backstory, which, due to its late introduction, is one element that remains unresolved as the final credits role.

Tom Brooke’s (The Death of Stalin) Neil similarly emerges from the back rows of the Empire’s remaining two screens to have greatness thrust upon him deep into the film’s running time. Neil is a surprisingly complex character, but we know almost nothing about him outside his work life.

To contrast these late-emerging characters, Hannah Onslow (This Is Going To Hurt), gives a delightful performance as a ticket collector and punk music fan Janine, but she all but disappears as Norman and Neil emerge, her story utterly forgotten, presumably on the cutting room floor.

Empire of Light cast
The cast of ‘Empire of Light’. Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Much has been made of this film being a love letter to the silver screen, but for that to be the case, the characters would have to have any stated relationship to film, other than the fact of their being paid to facilitate customers watching them. Indeed, so irrelevant is the cinema aspect that the film could have been set in a theatre, a book shop or a cafeteria, and hit all of the same narrative beats. Never has the supposed ‘glamour of the silver screen’ felt more tawdry, more hollow or more false. 

As the film continues Stephen and Hilary encourage each other to broaden their horizons and allow some light into their respective darknesses. Slowly, carefully, understatedly, their lives improve as Hilary grows in confidence and Steven grasps the opportunities previously denied to him. 

But ‘it’s the hope that will kill you’, and as the story continues the happy ending which would be found in a Hollywood movie fails to materialise as this cinematic equivalent of literary fiction tries its hardest to manipulate our emotions. 

Michael Ward in Empire of Light
Micheal Ward as Stephen. Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

It’s not all poorly realised narrative choices, however. Away from the story, there are some lovely moments of filmmaking. The use of silence, especially in the first act is compelling and allows us to focus on the exquisitely realised recreation of early 1980s England.

The set designers and the props team should be showered with praise for the accuracy of the buildings, the costumes, Hilary’s flat and even the sweets available at the Empire’s concession stand.

Olivia Colman should receive a slew of acting awards for her work here. If there’s any justice, Micheal Ward should be similarly recognised. Both Colman and Ward give nuanced performances, despite the sometimes disappointing quality of material they’ve been given to work with.

Far from a tribute to the uplifting and life-affirming nature of film, Empire of Light seems to actually be a cautionary tale of what happens when people are repeatedly denied happiness.

As we find ourselves in 2023 living through an ongoing cost-of-living crisis and seemingly never-ending austerity cuts as the Tories continue to be in power, Empire of Light may perhaps be a perfect allegory for the straitened times in which we once again find ourselves – if only we can find the hidden meaning in the film’s many narrative offerings.

Featured Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures

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