Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Sam Mendes

Stars: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tanya Moodie, Tom Brooke, Hannah Oslow.

The latest film from Oscar winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917, etc) is something of a love letter to the cinema and the effect of films on our lives. But it is something of a tepid love letter when compared to films like the glorious Cinema Paradiso and the like. 

The film is set in the dreary coastal town of Margate, which has seen better years, and most of the drama centres around the art deco Empire Cinema which is located on the boardwalk. The cinema, like the town, has passed its prime. It is the early 80s and the effects of Thatcher’s tough economic policies are beginning to be felt. There was also a rise in nationalism and racism and racially based violence. 

Hilary (Olivia Colman, who won an Oscar for her performance in The Favourite) is the duty manager of the cinema and she has to deal with irate customers and ensure the smooth running of the staff. She also has to endure the sexual advances of her stuffy boss Dennis Ellis (Colin Firth). But she has little personal life away from the cinema. Hilary also suffers from bipolar disorder and has recently returned to work after a brief stint in the local mental hospital following a breakdown.  

A new member joins the staff at the cinema – Stephen (played by Micheal Ward, from tv series Top Boy, etc), a young black man whose architecture studies have been temporarily put on hold. As a black man Stephen has suffered racial taunts for most of his life. But Hilary is drawn towards his quiet and gentle nature and a romance blossoms between the pair. Another key player in the drama is Norman (Toby Jones), the veteran projectionist whose passion for cinema is obvious. Those scenes set in the projection room reveal a nostalgia for the heyday of cinema and the art of projection, which has been lost in this digital era.  

Empire Of Light is the first film entirely written by Mendes – in the past he has often shared a screen writing credit – and it is a little uneven as he tries to tackle too many different narrative strands and some are left underdeveloped. The premiere of Chariots Of Fire held at the cinema seems a curiously understated affair. The film has been shaped by his own memories of the era, and the character of Hilary is loosely based on his own mother, who similarly suffered from a bipolar disorder, and this lends the material something of a melancholic tone. 

Performances are solid, with Colman a standout as the fragile Hilary. She gives the complex character an emotional resonance and depth as the film explores her dramatic arc, and she conveys her mood swings and precarious mental state convincingly. Ward is good as the essentially decent Stephen and brings charm to his role, while Firth is largely cast against type in an unsympathetic role as the sleazy Mr Ellis. 

The film has been beautifully shot by Mendes’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins who uses golden hues to give the material a wistful and warm nostalgic feel. The evocative soundtrack features a selection of carefully chosen tracks from the likes of Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and The Specials which further contribute to the nostalgic mood. The soundtrack complements the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And kudos go to production designer Mark Tildesley for his work in creating the interiors of the Empire Cinema, which was constructed in a former cinema which had fallen into a state of disrepair. 

For a film that is supposedly dealing with the magic of cinema to touch our lives, there is very little magic about Empire Of Light


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