Another, sadder lens into the past in ‘Empire of Light’

Images courtesy Searchlight Pictures.

5/10 Empire of Light is a good, quiet little movie that’s sad, thoughtful and breathtakingly beautiful, and I liked it.

The Empire Cinema, Ballroom and Restaurant in Margate, England, December, 1980- Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), who works as the theater manager, lives alone, takes lithium to manage the wild mood swings for which she was recently hospitalized and seems to accept sexual abuse from her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), as part of her job. Things start to change with the arrival of a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), with whom Small strikes up a relationship. Small sorts her life out while observing as Stephen, who is black, navigates skinheads emboldened by Thatcherism in the coastal English town.

Empire of Light is definitely the B side of 2022 semi-autobiographical pieces from name directors about how big an impact movies had on their childhood. The film is much more heavily fictionalized than The Fabelmans – Small is based on writer/director/producer Sam Mendes’ mother, who he said experienced similar mental illness and forced him into a caretaker role at times, but Small is portrayed as single and childless, which has a sanitizing effect. Empire of Light would be a very different film if she were having these problems while married and taking care of a child. The Empire Cinema is fictional, with the Dreamland Margate Cinema standing in for the location, representing all the old movie palaces and the mostly lost era of grandeur. Most of all, Mendes was born in 1965, and was already off to Cambridge when the film is set, and the political climate of 1981 is a huge part of the film.

Empire of Light is sitting at 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s easy to see why it doesn’t connect with many viewers. It just kind of drifts around Margate for a couple of hours, soaking in mostly unpleasant subject matter with no narrative goal and ending at a point that feels arbitrary – it opens with Christmas trees everywhere and an early New Year’s party, cuing viewers to expect a full year cycle, but it cuts off in the middle of April after wallowing through the winter.

Everything’s dreadfully symbolic. Small’s lethargy and emotionally empty life is symbolized by the theater and the empty, desiccated upper floors housing the third and fourth screens and otherworldly cafe. Stephen cares for a pigeon with a broken wing as he approaches Small romantically. When Small has a tantrum that breaks their relationship, she destroys a big sand castle they’d been building on the beach.

If Empire of Light is unstructured play, then it’s unstructured play from master craftsmen in Mendes and photography director Roger Deakins, the legendary cinematographer who immediately transitioned from the recognized master awaiting his first Oscar, which he won for Blade Runner 2049, into a Meryl Streep-esque role of obligatory recognition – he earned Empire of Light’s only Oscar nomination. You can really tell it’s a Deakins film if you know what you’re looking for, with the brilliant colors and silhouettes. Deakins films always have a full silhouette shot, even when they aren’t noirs. The imagery and compositions of the theater and Small’s apartment is simple, brilliant, striking and hit you like a sharp gust of melancholy. Plot or no plot, it’s a wonderful film to just look at and admire.

Colman is absolutely brilliant bringing a sadness and frustration to the lead role, which feels pent-up even as she lets it all out.

It feels like I’m giving Empire of Light a pass, but its disorganization is genuine. It comes from emotional half-memories, and Mendes doesn’t need to have a thesis to want to see them play out – though he does have one. The film is an experiment in present-mindedness, frankly portraying sexual abuse of employees, mental health crises and English nationalism in 1981 for a 2022 perspective, and more importantly through a female and black perspective, after the Weinstein scandal, after a sea change in understanding mental health and after Trumpism has taken over for Reaganism and Thatcherism.

All these things in a movie set 40 years ago could be transplanted almost directly onto movies addressing these social issues today, which also contributes to the film’s feeling of listlessness. We know watching it there’s been little visible progress on any of these social conflicts, and that’s the point. Mendes is taking problems that seem relatively new because they’re talked about in new ways, but in actuality go back centuries, and jamming them in as urgent, surface-level conflicts of this fabricated memory. These problems are not new or even particularly special, they just shaped his childhood before anyone explained them to him.

The only thing we’ve really moved on from in Empire of Light are the movie palaces. 

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at 

This entry was posted in Entropy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s