“Empire of Light” is directed by Sam Mendes (1917, Spectre) and stars Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown), Michael Ward (The A List, The Old Guard), Monica Dolan (A Very English Scandal, Appropriate Adult), Tom Brooke (Preacher, Game of Thrones), Tanya Moodie (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, A Discovery of Witches), Hannah Onslow (This Is Going to Hurt, Ridley Road), Crystal Clarke (Sanditon, Ordeal by Innocence), Toby Jones (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Hunger Games), and Colin Firth (1917, Kingsman: The Secret Service). This film is about a group of people living in 1980s England who work together at a cinema. Two of these people, specifically Hilary, the manager, and Stephen, a recent hire, develop a bond and take their connection to the point of a committed relationship.
There is a saying that Hollywood loves itself. Movies like “La La Land” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” highlight such a point. But while those movies are their calendar year’s shining example of “movie about movies” storytelling, 2022 is not short on these kinds of stories. “The Fabelmans,” which is based on Steven Spielberg’s youth, highlights the power of making movies. “Clerks III” doubles as a homage to Kevin Smith’s previous creations while also paying tribute to people want to create a film. I think it also shows how difficult such a process can be, both in front of and behind the camera. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” which stars Nicholas Cage as himself, pays tribute to various movies he made (and some he did not) while also poking fun at the way certain cinematic stories are told. “See How They Run” features a storyline where people want to turn a play into a motion picture. Later this month, “Babylon,” which is set in old Hollywood, will hit theatres. Some may call it self-indulgent, self-absorbed, or self-obsessed. Based on how I liked all these movies, minus “Babylon,” which I have yet to see, I would call it “writing what you know.” One thing is for sure, Hollywood knows movies.
While “Empire of Light” does not entirely highlight people making movies, it does highlight another important aspect of the filmmaking process, selling the movies. Most of this film takes place at a movie theatre. Not a modern day multiplex like AMC or Regal, but a small venue with a couple screens. The building itself looked beautiful. Similar to how “The Fabelmans” emits a certain magical feeling in regard to filmmaking itself, the cinema here emits an alike feeling to the point where just being inside it feels like an escape from your problems.
Despite being in a digital age where everything is at our fingertips, I am glad we still have movie theaters. In fact, I had the chance to watch “Empire of Light” at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which if you are not from the Boston area, is a cinema in Brookline, Massachusetts that has some killer Art Deco vibes and a lot of history. It is a great place to see a movie. Watching a movie like this in a theater of that nature, the kind where they open and close the curtains before and after the movie, felt beautifully trippy. The best movies are those that take you to another world, and despite being in an older movie auditorium, I felt like I escaped into another auditorium somewhere else.
Joined by other casting standouts like Michael Ward, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth, “Empire of Light” is led by Olivia Colman, a talented actress who can do no wrong here. Unsurprisingly, she breaks both of her legs in this movie and maybe even a shoulder. I would not be surprised if she receives some chatter this awards season. She portrays Hilary, a cinema manager. From a written perspective, I would say Hilary is a kind of manager I would love to work for. She is competent, occasionally tough, but also fair. In short, she appears to want the best for everyone. Above all, she seems to be in her mojo whenever she happens to be at the cinema. I am kind of jealous of everyone who got to work at the cinema before the 21st century, partially because of what they seemed to provide. Cinemas nowadays still provide a wonderful experience. Also, large formats like Dolby Cinema and IMAX are great ways to enhance blockbuster presentations for example. But there is something about the cinema now, as magical as it is, and yet it seems that some of the magic might have been more evident in a time before Nicole Kidman tried to tell me that heartbreak feels good in a place like this. If I could transport myself to the cinema in this film, I would take the opportunity if it were presented to me.
This leads me to my next ounce of praise, the locations and overall look of the film. Again, the movie theater itself is lovely. It felt massive and at the same time, intimate. The rooftop, especially at night, is ingrained in my memory. There are also some beach scenes that looked crispy. Why should I be surprised? This is from the same director/cinematographer duo who also worked on “1917,” which looked gorgeous in its own right. Now, comparing the two films on a technical level seems unfair as “1917” was designed to look like most of it was done in a single take. But I would say “Empire of Light” is a solid follow-up.
Before I address my problems with the film, another compliment I must give to “Empire of Light” is the sound mix. Following what I said about the magic of the movies, the sound in this movie, is best heard in a theater. The levels could not be better or more immersive. That said, there is one sound I found particularly annoying. Partially because I heard it so many times in other content, but it makes at least seven appearances in this one movie. Do not take my word for it, but gosh does it feel like seven… I do not mind hearing seagulls, but hearing the same seagull sound effect after the fifth time took me out of the film, which is unfortunate considering how immersive the rest of the movie is. I will also address the story. It is not a bad story by any means, but it feels like all sparkle with very little shine. The performances are great, but the writing to support said performances lacks flair at times. I cared for the characters, but I cannot say I was as invested in them as other movies I saw recently.
I often make the assessment that every movie, even unforgivable garbage such as “Morbius,” will always be better in a theater. I will also note there are moments, like certain portions of the score, or one particular repeated sound effect during a scene three quarters of the way through the runtime, that are marvelously hard on the ears and build tension just by becoming the elephant in the room. This film is not as complicated as “Top Gun: Maverick,” but whoever did the sound mixing should be happy with how it came out. If you look at the box office nowadays, you may notice that films that partially rely on spectacle like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Jurassic World: Dominion” are usually the box office kings. Films that are of a tinier caliber like “Vengeance” or “The Fabelmans,” even though they might have have notable people in front of or behind the camera, do not do as well. I am part of the audience who goes to see spectacle fare like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” because the odds are that the big screen experience will be the ultimate way to experience those movies. If you are thinking of waiting to watch “Empire of Light” at home, there is no one stopping you. However, few movies have sounded or looked as good this year given the scale for which this movie aims. There is a reason why Roger Deakins, this film’s director of photography, has 15 Academy Award nominations attached to his name. I would not be surprised, depending on how well this movie does, if he gets nomination 16.
In the end, “Empire of Light” is not my favorite tribute to movies this year, but it is one of the more palatable ones. This has a look to it as attractive as “The Fabelmans,” and as weird as this may be to clarify, not as heartwarming or emotionally charging as “Clerks III.” Despite my slight negatives, I recommend this film. If you have a chance to see “Empire of Light” this weekend, take it. Go out and support this film. Sam Mendes gets a thumbs up from me on his first film after “1917.” I am going to give “Empire of Light” a very high 7/10.
“Empire of Light” is now playing in select theaters. Tickets are available now.
Thanks for reading this review! Stay tuned for the upcoming week, because “Avatar: The Way of Water,” finally hits theaters after 13 years of waiting. I already have my tickets for Thursday and I will share my thoughts on the film as soon as possible. These are words part of me never thought I’d say, but here we are. Here is hoping the film is worth the wait, and that it actually has a decent, memorable script this time around. Speaking of “films…” My next review is going to be for a film called “The Mean One.” For those who are not in the know, this is basically a gorier version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.” Is this film going to pack in all tons of Christmas spirit? Or did it make me green and icky? Find out in the next review! If you want to see this and more from Scene Before, follow the blog either with an email or WordPress account! Also, check out the official Facebook page! I want to know, did you see “Empire of Light?” What did you think about it? Or, what is your movie theater of choice? I am an AMC A-List member, so there are a few AMC locations I usually go to, but one of my favorite places to see a movie is the Sunbrella IMAX at Jordan’s Furniture in Reading, Massachusetts. It is THE place for a big-budget film, and it is also where I will be watching “Avatar: The Way of Water” this Thursday. Let me know your picks down below! Scene Before is your click to the flicks!