Empire of Light


‘…lavishly upholstered miserabilism is a loser right out of the gate, and while Coleman is worth seeing in a role that seems ideally suited to her substantial range, this shabby Empire of Light never looks like striking back for British cinema…’

Arrgghhh! Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light is exactly what we don’t need right now; an earnest, virtue-signalling slice of nostalgia for times that never existed. We’re ticking off a list of today’s issues (racial violence, toxic, abusive men, mental health, the death of cinema) while making sledgehammer points about them all in a way that’s bound to be a massive turn-off from critics and audiences alike. Mendes early-80’s drama is part of an ill-timed wave of movies nostalgic for the cinema of the past, and ends up contributing one more shovel of gravel on the coffin of the tradition of enjoying big-screen entertainment.

So let’s start with the good, and Roger Deakins’ top notch photography; Empire of Light opens credits over a series of beautiful shots of an empty cinema, an art-deco structure that exists for real here in the UK in Margate. Expectations are raised, then quickly squashed as we see put-upon cinema employee Hilary Small (Olivia Coleman) suffering from a questionably consensual encounter with her sleazebag boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth); witnessing Firth’s coital begging for Hilary to ‘**** me off’ should make sure anyone’s 2023 year in cinema gets off to the worst possible start. Small hopes for bigger things, and they arrive in the form of Stephen (Micheal Ward) an impossibly sensitive, poetry-reading black employee who soon ensnares Small in some improbably 50 Shades-level bump and grind in the shut-down parts of the 4-screen multiplex. Small has been prescribed lithium as a result of a previous breakdown, but as a big charity premiere of Chariots of Fire looms, Small finds it hard to avoid exposing her boss’s infidelity….

Mendes has a solo writing credit for the first time on Empire of Light, but credit is hardly due; Empire of Light’s script is clumsily written, name-checking issues but without much empathy or sensitivity. The Empire’s employees seem to have zero interest in the films that they screen, even though the posters and clips we see (Stir Crazy, The Blues Brothers, Being There) suggest a golden age; any one of the films referenced have more entertainment value than this. Ward can barely shift the needle with an underwritten part that only works as an example of Key and Peele’s ‘magical negro’ trope, and Firth provides little depth to his obvious white-male hate-figure. Coleman does the heavy lifting for the lot of them, making Hilary Small a relatable and sympathetic figure even if the narrative sags under rampant wokeness; a gang of racists attack the cinema in a wildly contrived resolution.

At a time when we need reasons to entice people back to the big screen, Empire of Light comes out with the weakest argument for cinemagoing yet; we should go because we feel sorry for the people who work there? Such lavishly upholstered miserabilism is a loser right out of the gate, and while Coleman is worth seeing in a role that seems ideally suited to her substantial range, this shabby Empire of Light never looks like striking back for British cinema.



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    • She’s the only reason to see this other than the cinematography of Deakins. Worth it if you love Coleman…

  1. You had me at “Aargh.” Terrible pretentious mess. Modern British audience of course would treat it as complete fiction with the idea you could turn up at A&E and be admitted immediately. So, except for one person, the cinema employs people who don’t like movies. And naturally studios are queuing up to premiere pictures at Margate. And a seagull somehow manages to break a wing but still has enough wing power to get up on a shelf. And a multiplex would close two of four cinemas when the whole point is to have smaller screens to shift product to. Don’t get me started…

  2. If Deakins didn’t mooch around like a covert member of the Rolling Stones would anyone think his visual style, which seems quite minimalist, was so amazing?

    That said I did go to his worshipping, sorry I mean interview at the BFI in 2021… where they introduced him as the worlds greatest living cinematographer… hmmm really… but the fact he didn’t correct them once he got on stage I found interesting!

    Mendes seems that typical breed of ‘approved British film-director from an appropriately pleasant theatre background’. They usually spend their well supported careers churning out a factory line of chocolate-box films (that aren’t really films), before retiring to the Cotswolds and fading into their vests.

    • At least Deakins puts in a shift here; you can see the result of what he does. Mendes takes a mighty tumble here with some real eixth-form writing that indicates that script is not something he can do. There’s a lot of that kind of director around, usually from a theatre background. Sticking in bits of poetry might have worked on Skyfall, but it falls flat here; it’s like getting a civics lesson from your RE teacher or something. Amazing how out of touch a supposedly populist film-maker can be.

  3. The trailer makes the film look like an absolute slog, which your review confirms.

    Think I’ll stay home and give the Pompeii DVD another spin instead.


    • Is the correct answer! Mendes seems to be good at having a hot take on material, from Cabaret to Bond, but give him a microphone and a spotlight and he’s got absolutely nothing to say; his memoir of being a young cinema obsessed black man in the 80’s is cultural appropriation gone mad, and it’s boring to boot. As you say, NEXT!

  4. When the final nail in cinema’s coffin is tapped down, do you think we’ll know it? Or will cineastes still be beating their fists against the coffin top while being buried alive?
    Almost sounds like movies are out to sabotage movies!

  5. I can’t think of any reason I’d see this. Sounds like a crope.

    contribuing, and I would put another “i” in miserablism though I guess there are alternates, especially if you listen to the Pet Shop Boys.

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