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Empire of Light (BFI London Film Festival 2022)

3 min read
Two silhouettes stand on a roof and watch a firework display over a coastal town at night.

There has been no shortage of films that celebrate cinema: , Cinema Paradiso, Hugo, to name but a few. has given it a go but is more akin to Kenneth Branagh's Belfast than anything else – a fictional exploration of his childhood and the social-economic landscape at the time. For Mendes, that is 1980 where cinemas were community spaces for healing and connection.

Whilst Mendes does find that humanity within the film's Empire Cinema, it is only effective within individual scenes rather than as a collective whole. By tackling not just the magic of cinema but community, romance, racism, mental illness and more, Empire of Light is stretched thin and suffers for it – even with an amazing cast and gorgeous technical elements.

Hilary () manages a seafront cinema that has seen better days. Whilst the grand entrance and even grander screening room evokes golden age era splendour, the upstairs section – containing a dance hall and additional screens – is shut off and in ruins. Whilst wholly dedicated to her job, there is a sense that Hilary isn't too happy with life. She struggles to socialise at work or outside, and has an unfulfilling, one-sided affair with the cinema's manager Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth).  

Things change however when new employee Stephen () joins the front of house team. Hilary and Stephen quickly bond and fall for each other, but keep their romance a secret in the pigeon-infested upstairs floor. As well as their growing romance, Hilary deals with severe mental illness, Stephen faces racism from a rising far-right movement, and the cinema prepares for the premiere screening of Chariots of Fire. If it sounds like a lot, that's because it is.

Olivia Colman and Michael Ward stand side by side in an abandoned 1980's dance hall.

This is Mendes' first solo credit as a writer and unfortunately that shows. The biggest problem is that there's at least four different movies in this under two hour film. Each sensitive issue doesn't have the time or space required to be effective, and in the end comes off as surface-level and even problematic. Whilst there are fleeting moments that suggest the idea of cinema as a community space for healing, the film never gets that across in a meaningful way. Some individual scenes are quite effective though, but that is mainly thanks to the performances and creative team behind the film.

Empire of Light might have a mess of a script, but the cast and crew prevent this from being a total disaster – which isn't too surprising when you have Britain's best in front and behind the camera. Colman is magnificent as always, showing off how funny she can be as well as emotionally complex. Ward is effortlessly charming and engaging but the script doesn't give him the time or material he so deserves. The whole cast make the film a breeze to watch: Tom Brooke is hilarious and heart-warming, Toby Jones brings wit and passion, and Firth is deliciously despicable.

Probably the most talked about aspect of Empire of Light will be how gorgeous it is. The legendary Roger Deakins conjures up striking compositions with stunning lighting. Yellow neon light from the cinema's signage soaks the leads' faces and plenty of silhouettes can be found before expansive backdrops. Designer Mark Tildesley brings the 80's seaside town to life and the score from Trett Reznor and Atticus Ross is quietly compelling. 

Mendes has exclaimed that Empire of Light is deeply personal to him, evoking his own upbringing, but that personal nostalgia is never felt. The many, many themes and narrative strands never fully connect and makes the film feel too disconnected and messy. Saving the project, however, is the incredible cast and crew who give it their all. Empire of Light fails to meaningfully capture the magic of cinema, but it does a great job of showing off the immense power of British talent.     

Empire of Light screened at BFI London Film Festival 2022 and releases in cinemas from 13th January 2023