: Set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, EMPIRE OF LIGHT is a compelling and poignant drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, from Academy Award® winning director Sam Mendes.


Starting from his first big screen directorial debut, American Beauty, Sam Mendes seldom disappoints his fans. With a vast range of experience working on movies liked Road to Perdition to Skyfall to 1917, Mendes has proven he is a genius filmmaker. His latest being his first solo written piece, Empire of Light however is more of a disappointment than a flick worth visit or revisiting again.

It’s no doubt Mendes’ passion project is an ode to cinema but there’s too little to speak of it in the entire affair unlike Cinema Paradiso or the recent Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. The drama deals with a lot of things. Racism, mental illness and a May-September romance just to name a few. It definitely makes for a compelling serious drama except adding a layer of poignancy and love to the art of cinema in which the movie is supposed to be.

The year is 1980 and the Empire cinema located on a beautiful English coast is manned by Hilary Small (Olivia Coleman), a lady who lives alone, suffers from bipolar disorder and is also having an affair with her boss (played by Colin Firth). In comes a handsome young man, Stephen (Michael Ward) who is studying to become an architect. Ward soon hooks up with Hilary as they enjoy some casual sex and company in an abandoned level of the Empire.

But happy times soon came to a halt when Hilary suffers a major relapse right in front of the regional premier of Chariots of Fire. With Hilary’s health deteriorating, the unlikely pair has to finally make a heart-breaking decision in the crossroad of their lives.

Instead of a celebration of cinema in a very nicely art-deco location, we are treated to a somewhat tedious fling between two completely different individuals. Obviously not in the league of Revolutionary Road, Hilary is a mental patient that is in need of help. Stephen on the other hand is stuck in a dangerous era where skinheads loom at every corner ready to serve him a beating. There is nothing common in the both of them except emptiness, insecurity and uncertain about the road ahead.

The narrative paints them as lost souls who somehow ended up together. There are indeed some touching moments but it never comes across earned and justifiable in the end. Toby Jones plays a projectionist named Norman who is an absolutely perfectionist and expert in his craft. Rather than a mesmerising tale between an old white man and his black protégé (Stephen develops an interest in projectionist as the story goes), Empire of Light turns into an unfocused puddle of boredom.

Despite acclaimed Roger Deakins’ almost picture perfect lensing and the incredible performances from Coleman and Ward, Empire of Light is a missed opportunity through and through. There’s so much wonder and magic that you expect to see in the Empire that perhaps certain reels are misplaced in transition.



Review by Linus Tee