Empire of Light Movie Review: What Happened at the End of the Story?

Empire of Light is the first film written and directed by Sam Mendes on his own. He assembled a talented cast and team to create a stunning cinematic experience that appeals to multiple senses. However, there is a significant mismatch between his character development, thematic aspects, and the larger plot, which fails to strike the correct emotional chord.

Empire of Light Movie Review: What Happened at the End of the Story?

In the early 1980s, Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a cinema manager working in an elderly movie theatre in a seaside English town.

She has a calm demeanor and appears to have a decent head on her shoulders, according to many on the outside. Meanwhile, Hilary battles her own internal demons as she struggles with mental health difficulties.


Stephen (Michael Ward) is a new employee at the theatre, but he longs to escape the little town and the racism he encounters on the streets. Hilary and Stephen develop love sentiments for each other and a shared sense of belonging. Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before their personal tensions interfere.

_‘Empire of Light’ Movie Review
_‘Empire of Light’ Movie Review

In Empire of Light, Mendes paints a dreamy picture of what it means to work in a movie theatre. He describes a typical day by alternating between an empty cinema at the opening, the rush of moviegoers eager to escape into another world, and the unpleasant chore of cleaning up after impolite guests.

The cinema once had more screens, but the second story of the structure is depicted as another planet lost to time. Its beauty is largely intact, but it’s not the only site where these folks discover awe. Stephen is awestruck by the projectionist (Toby Jones) and all that goes into the images that audiences enjoy on the silver screen.

There are numerous antics occurring at this movie theatre. There are disturbing power relationships above and below Hilary.

She feels forced to engage in sexual encounters with her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), on a regular basis. However, she falls in love with Stephen, who reports directly to her. In each other’s presence, their hearts and minds are opened, for better or for worse.

Empire of Light is about fresh starts. The theatre and the people who keep it alive are profoundly influenced by social, economic, and temporal factors.

Despite their age difference, Hilary and Stephen have plenty to teach each other. Instead of waiting for life to unfold, they learn to follow their deepest ambitions before the opportunities are lost.

Empire of Light is a forgettable sentimental movie. Colin Firth as Donald Ellis and Micheal Ward as Stephen in “Empire of Light.” They are standing next to one another with suits and ties in front of a wall with wooden panels behind them and smiling.
Searchlight Pictures presents, from left to right, Colin Firth as Donald Ellis and Michael Ward as Stephen.

Mendes struggles with social instability, the individual repercussions of racism, and mental health. Nonetheless, they all barely touch the surface, following a predictable course that has nothing especially significant to offer.

These profound concepts are intertwined into a romance that does not feel fully developed, using character motivations as reveals rather than an intrinsic piece of the puzzle that is absent for an excessively long time. The romance in Empire of Light is characterized by a lack of notable intensity.

Nevertheless, the great cameraman Roger Deakins captures it well. Similar to the second floor of the theatre, the film feels like an ancient tale. It has an undeniable delicate beauty that is emphasized by splashes of color that bring the image to life.


It is a particularly swoon-worthy visual design that conveys the beauty in Hilary and Stephen’s surroundings while also emphasizing the looming evil that threatens them.

Meanwhile, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score improves the dramatic moments in Empire of Light, imbuing the film with the soul when the writing fails to do so.

Colman delivers an amazing performance, but when hasn’t she? Ward is sympathetic and believable, but the love spark between the two characters is lacking. Empire of Light is a highly constructed love poem to the magic of cinema that is more concerned with explaining how than why.

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