Review: 'Empire of Light' Balances Turmoil with Cinematic Dreams

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday December 8, 2022

This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Olivia Colman in a scene from "Empire of Light."
This image released by 20th Century Studios shows Olivia Colman in a scene from "Empire of Light."  (Source:Searchlight Pictures via AP)

Sam Mendes' latest is a gauzy dream of movie magic and '80s nostalgia — but with hard edges of racist hatred and mental illness.

Olivia Colman, as wonderful as ever, plays Hilary, a duty manager at a movie house on England's southern coast. Years ago, the Empire Theater boasted four screens and elegant upper floors with a restaurant area, but now, in the early 1980s — a time of Thatcherism, skinhead violence, and race riots — the place is diminished though still, as the English would say, rubbing along.

So is Hilary, who, prior to the start of the story, spent time in a psychiatric ward. Now she's back at work, taking lithium and feeling its side effects, and trying to remain chipper as she checks in with her therapist. It's unclear to what degree her sexual relationship with the married general manager of the theater (played by Colin Firth) saved her job, but that, too, is something she's still dealing with.

Fate seems to suggest two possible additional therapies for Hilary. One is to take a little time to enjoy the magic her place of enjoyment offers to everyone else; Hilary herself never checks out the movies, rationalizing that she had too much work to do. The other is a real romance — and this is something that Hilary does allow herself to enter into, with the theater's newest employee, Stephen (Michael Ward). The two begin having trysts in the theater's disused upper portion, a space with an expansive view and where pigeons have taken over.

The fact that Stephen is Black seems well beside the point — until it's not. For the theater workers, he's one more on the team, dealing with difficult patrons and helping the projectionist (Toby Jones) haul heavy film canisters up and down steep flights of stairs. But for others, his skin color is cause for suspicion, harassment, or even violence. Stephen knows this all too well, feeling the eyes of a fellow passenger on him as he and Hilary ride a bus home after a day at the seaside, he quietly slips his arm from around her shoulders.

The country seems to tremble with a gathering tension, and Hilary's state of mind begins to deteriorate once more. There are some terrific movies playing at the Empire; could they provide a measure of respite and relief? Mendes circles around the idea, which is central to the film but which wavers in and out of narrative focus like a warped movie print. Indeed, "Empire of Light" never seems quite sure where its center is located. But if the story can't fully commit, the cast makes up for it with a clutch of scintillating performances.

This isn't the sort of cineaste's treasure trove that "The Fabelmans" is, but it's a (to trot out the well-worn cliché) a Valentine to the movies all the same.

"Empire of Light" plays in theaters starting Dec. 9.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.