In Empire of Light, the year is 1980 and Hilary Small is working as the duty manager at the Empire Cinema, in the seaside town of Margate. Hilary works hard at her job, and is part of a small team, but she struggles with her health and is desperately lonely.
She has friends at work, but spends her free-time alone. Hilary is also having a secret affair with the cinema manager – something she is being coerced into.
One day, the cinema manager hires a new employee, named Stephen. Stephen is a black man, living and working in an area predominantly represented by white people, and he quickly becomes a popular addition to the team.
Hilary takes a shine to Stephen, and they soon develop a relationship. However, over the course of time their union hits a few problems, including issues related to racism, as well as some revelations about Hilary’s past.
Written and directed by Sam Mendes, Empire of Light stars Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones. Empire of Light is new to UK cinemas from today, and is a British romantic drama, set to the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain.
The movie tells the story of a burgeoning romance between two people who are considered social outsiders, and touches upon themes including racial tensions, mental health, and the complexities of life. There are occasional moments of humour and whimsy, specifically when the film is leaning into its more romantic side, but this is not a light-hearted affair, as it largely delves into some heavy material at times.
As such, Empire of Light is probably best described as a bit of a rollercoaster ride, in that it has many ups and downs, and a few sharp turns that may catch audiences off guard. And like a rollercoaster ride, there is some enjoyment and plenty of entertainment to be had, with much to experience along the way, but once it is all over, you can’t help but wonder, was that it?
This isn’t to say that Empire of Light is a bad film, or that it doesn’t offer some strong material, but it isn’t quite the sure-fire success it should be. The picture has plenty going for it, including a mesmerising performance from Olivia Colman as Hilary, but there is a sense the story doesn’t quite live up to its potential or feel entirely satisfactory.
As mentioned above, the film touches upon a number of themes, all of which prove very interesting to watch. The picture’s discussion of racial tensions and inequality during the 1980s also feels very reflective of the current times, and writer/director Sam Mendes certainly finds a way to tell a story about the past which still feels relevant forty years on.
However, while telling his story, Mendes spends a little too much time on all the details, without giving the narrative quite the umph it needs. Sure, there is an overriding story arc, which largely focuses on Hilary and her struggle with her own personal problems, but the story never quite feels as fully-formed as it needs to be.
Without giving away any major spoilers, Hilary faces challenges, they interfere with her life, she overcomes some of them, battles through others, and then sort of continues on. Along the way there is a romance, which plays an important part in her development, but it never quite packs enough of a punch.
Once again, I refer back to the rollercoaster metaphor. The story has peaks and troughs, but it all feels a bit underwhelming.
Where the picture truly excels is in the cinematography and in the casting. Both are the movie’s strongest assets, and are the main reasons to give this film your time.
Starting with the cinematography, this picture has been shot by Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, etc) and this is a key selling point. Deakins is a pro when it comes to capturing the right mood and feel, and he doesn’t faulter here.
Every frame of Empire of Light looks good, and he brings heart and verisimilitude to the picture. This film looks spectacular, and it will make you long for the return of old-fashioned cinemas, and the smell of freshly made popcorn.
As for the cast, director Sam Mendes brings together a great collection of players, including Toby Jones, and Colin Firth, as well as Michael Ward, who is excellent in the role of Stephen. However, it is Olivia Colman who shines brightest, in that way Colman always does.
It feels redundant these days to say how good Olivia Colman is, but for those at the back who aren’t paying attention: Olivia Colman is really good in everything. She was the highlight in the somewhat uneven The Lost Daughter, she was brilliant in the excellent Joyride, and once again she is a fab in Empire of Light.
In the role of Hilary, Colman has to take her character to a number of emotional, impactful places, and she does it all effortlessly and brilliantly. Her performance is compelling, and I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.
Overall, Empire of Light ticks many of the right boxes and for the most part it works fine. It’s just a shame the story feels slightly underdeveloped and pedestrian, which is ultimately what stops me raving about this picture.
But Empire of Light is decent enough, and if you happen to catch it, there is plenty to like. Colman is worth the price of admission alone, and some of the themes add depth and grit to what could have easily been a twee romance.
Thank you for taking the time to read this review on It’s A Stampede!. For more reviews, check out the recommended reads below.
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