Empire of Light at Toronto International Film Festival: Sam Mendes’ loving ode to cinema

·3-min read
Michael Ward and Olivia Colman  (Handout)
Michael Ward and Olivia Colman (Handout)

Cinema is dying. In a post-pandemic world, streaming reigns supreme and fewer and fewer people feel inclined to put “bums in seats” when a smorgasbord of content is available right at home on a multitude of platforms. In early September Cineworld, the world’s second-largest chain of movie theatres filed for bankruptcy and now its fate hangs precariously in the balance. To dedicated filmmakers and movie-goers, this presents an ever-looming existential threat of losing one of the last communal spaces we can go to appreciate the art form.

Sam Mendes is the latest in a long line of auteurs that include Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Alejandro G Iñárritu (Bardo) and Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans) doing everything in their power to jumpstart a medium that is on the point of flatlining.

Mendes’ new film Empire of Light is his loving ode to cinema set in a tumultuous 1980s Britain, in a fictional movie theatre called the Empire that overlooks the seaside town of Margate. This is Mendes’ first time writing a screenplay solo and while this isn’t a semi-autobiographical tale of his youth like Belfast, it is drawn from the same nostalgic vein that celebrates the unmatched power of the cinematic experience.

The first character he introduces us to is the Empire cinema itself. Mendes gently guides us around the theatre, saturated in red velvet and brass. Shots of old film reels are lovingly lit by Roger Deakins and accompanied by the wistfully romantic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. We then meet deputy manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) and the other workers; the ticket takers Neil (Tom Brooke) and Janine (Hannah Onslow) as well as the venue’s projectionist (Toby Jones).

Hilary is a solemnly sad individual. She takes lithium for an unspecified mental condition and is living a numb day-to-day existence. Her sleazy boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) takes advantage of her, trading sexual favours in his office for boxes of Milk Tray. It is only after Hilary experiences the kindness and affection of the newest Empire staff member Stephen (Micheal Ward) that she begins to feel alive again.

Actor Olivia Colman, left, gets a kiss from co-star Micheal Ward at the premiere of Empire of Light at the Toronto International Film Festival (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Actor Olivia Colman, left, gets a kiss from co-star Micheal Ward at the premiere of Empire of Light at the Toronto International Film Festival (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Stephen is facing his own adversities too. As a young Black man living in Thatcher-era Britain with the National Front on the rise, Stephen is subjected to all manner of racial abuse both at work and on the street. Going to university to study architecture would be his salvation but for now, he currently finds much-needed escapism in watching movies.

Hilary and Steven seem like a mismatched pair but somehow it works. Despite the noticeable age gap, Colman and Ward are electric together. Colman’s versatile range of emotion is on full display and Ward is an irresistibly charming screen presence. Try not to fall in love with them.

The technical elements of this film are outstanding. Mark Tildesley beautifully punctuates the cinema-is-dying theme, particularly when our two lost souls explore the upper level of the Empire, where two disused screening rooms and the grand ballroom now belong to the pigeons.

A slew of technical nominations and a fourth acting nod for Academy-favourite Colman seem inevitable. Expect the clip of Hilary paraphrasing Shakespeare while Vangelis’ iconic theme from Chariots of Fire swells in the background to be her Oscar-clip next year.

Where Mendes struggles is with his slightly uneven script. It’s admirable he wants to comment on pertinent topics like racism and mental health but they don’t exactly inform or compliment each other when mixed together here.

It also doesn’t help that the two Black characters other than Stephen - his mum Delia (Tanya Moodie) and Ruby (Crystal Clarke) - are introduced in the final act and feel like an afterthought.

Empire of Light is a touching yarn that will strike a chord with audiences and sentimental voters of the Academy. It’s not saying anything new but it’s a heartwarming reminder of the joy, comfort and necessity of the big screen experience.

Empire of Light premiered at the Telluride film festival and will be coming to the BFI London Film Festival in October. It will be released in UK cinemas on January 13, 2023