Empire of Light delights for how light and meaningful it becomes with its retro romance.
Published on December 14, 2022
Rating 4 /5
A particular earnest wonder makes Empire of Light succeed beyond the sweet nostalgia of old-fashioned cinema. Sure, Sam Mendes could’ve just thrown on the rose-colored glasses to adore the majesty of seeing early 1980s movies in a classic British cinema. While he does set aside some time for that, it’s not the central driving force of this surprisingly sublime drama of romance, trauma, racism, and dreams.
Olivia Colman gives a powerful performance as the theater employee Hilary Small. Quiet and timid, she goes about her daily duties of sweeping aisles and greeting guests. Christmas comes and goes with little excitement. Her manager (Colin Firth) occasionally calls her into his office for a sexual affair. Her home life is without words, hidden behind her medication for her mental disorder that seems under control. Having never been compelled to watch the movies at her, she lives a dull life.
That dullness is replaced with a newfound allure when her latest employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), turns out to be cute. Curious about the entire theater, Hilary reveals every inch of the premise, and they soon form a bond. It doesn’t matter that Stephen is much older as they conceal their love behind closed doors. They’re uncomfortable making their romance known for many reasons that they slowly reveal as their romance builds. We get bits and pieces of Hilary’s troubled history and Stephen’s dreams for the future that seems to be hampered by the politics of the era and the towering challenges of getting accepted to college.
This is a tender movie that isn’t afraid to find the right moments to rip your heart out just enough to stress the tribulations of the times. There will be adorable moments of genuine warmth as Stephen brings a glow to the theater. Later, there will be uncomfortable scenes of racists in the street who violently hassle him. Beautiful scenes of confessing love run into bumps of awkwardness, as when Hilary and Stephen share a kiss on New Year's Eve among the fireworks, only for Hilary to pull back in embarrassment at her drunk state.
As one might expect from such a staging, Mendes does not shy away from divulging his love letter to the cinema, akin to The Fabelmans. Thankfully, it’s used to a small degree that better benefits the romance of Hilary and Stephen, which is not just a love of movies. The theater better reflects the human nature of life’s wonderment, as the projectionist played by Toby Jones so beautifully illustrates. Without light and motion, films are still images with no life. But with that light comes an escape that can help us find ourselves in the worst times.
For as somber as this film can get, it finds some small moments of humor, even in the most awkward moments. The scenes of Hilary losing her cool and delivering a quiet Shakespearean rant about an affair at work are as funny as brutal, perfectly punctuated by Toby Jones delivering the perfect what-did-I-miss punchline. Stephen also has an infectious smile and attitude that he’s a delight when in his element, though watching him get frustrated makes it all the more heartbreaking. There are also a lot of little moments of family-style comradery among the theater staff, which seem incredibly playful.
Empire of Light delights for how light and meaningful it becomes with its retro romance. A handful of genuinely powerful moments breeze by the screen so fast it is almost like a whirlwind of emotional storytelling. Scenes of Hilary biting back about her mental disorder and Stephen learning the fine art of film projection are brilliant moments that populate this picture. The relatable realism mixed with movie-loving wonderment makes this film such a treat for a heartwarming experience.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.