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  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Empire of Light (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 13, 2022


Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Monica Dolan, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Sara Stewart, Ron Cook, Justin Edwards, Roman Hayeck-Green, Brian Fletcher, Dougie Boyall, William Chubb, Spike Leighton, Jacob Avery, Jamie Whitelaw, Dylan Blore, Adrian McLoughlin, D.J. Bailey and Tom Colley.

Screenplay by Sam Mendes.

Directed by Sam Mendes.

Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 113 minutes. Rated R.

This winter seems to be the time where Oscar-winning directors want to explore the magic of the cinema. First there was Steven Spielberg’s fantastic The Fabelmans. Coming soon is Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (more about that in a week or two…). And in between is this sweet tale from Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall, 1917).

Now unlike the other two movies, which celebrate the act of making films, Empire of Light revolves around the showing of those same movies. (Although, in fairness, both The Fabelmans and Babylon each have at least one segment celebrating the magic of simply watching a movie in a theater.)

Empire of Light is the story of the crew that works in The Empire, a slightly rundown but grand cinema on the British coastline, circa 1981. It is an odd mix of types and situations, but it is filled with outcasts who truly love film – and each other. (In a family way…)

And honestly, Empire of Light is a very nice film, although it could have been even better. (For the record, of the three films mentioned above, it’s worse than The Fabelmans, but much better than Babylon.)

Empire of Light has a sepia-toned nostalgia for the world it inhabits; the grandeur of the giant movie houses, the tail end of the 70s (culturally, if not chronologically), arguably the last great era of filmmaking. (Among the movies which are referenced significantly in the film are Being There, Chariots of Fire and Stir Crazy.)

In fact, in some ways, in its better moments, Empire of Light is reminiscent to that old beautiful Italian love song to theaters – Cinema Paradiso.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to try to stuff too many storylines into the confines of the Empire of Light. We are dealing with mental health issues, adultery, racism, May/December romance, interracial romance, and more. All of these issues are important and worthy of examination but piling so many together makes everything feel a bit overstuffed.

Still, as usual Olivia Colman is just breathtaking in her role as the brittle manager of the theater, and the mostly unknown Micheal Ward is pretty much her equal as a new usher who becomes her best friend – and maybe more. And Toby Jones steals every scene he is in as the soulful projectionist at the theater.

You expect a lot when you get a film starring Colman and directed by Oscar-winning director Mendes. Honestly, Empire of Light doesn’t quite live up to that pedigree, however it is a very sweet, wistful film and a true love note to the old-fashioned theater going experience. It’s definitely an experience worth revisiting.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: December 9, 2022.


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