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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Empire of Light’ – Sam Mendes’ ode to movies and movie theaters

A scene from "Empire of Light"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Empire of Light” is woozy with movie love. Writer/director Sam Mendes (“1917,” “American Beauty”) is unabashedly smitten with all things cinema, from the flickering images on screen to the mounds of popcorn at the concession stand. And if he’d stuck to this theme, his film might’ve worked as a kind of lightweight “Cinema Paradiso” wannabe.

A scene from “Empire of Light”

The time is the early 1980s. The place, the Empire, a theater whose fading elegance reflects the tattered off-season vibe of the small British seaside resort where it’s located. The Empire may have seen better days, but it still shows reasonably popular pictures, and the staff lavishes it with an off-handed care that shows an unwavering respect for the theater and its customers.

And there are still customers. Enough to leave a small post-show mess of spilled popcorn. But not enough to keep the Empire functioning at full capacity. Several of its auditoriums are roped off and empty, as is a top-floor cafe that now provides a home for pigeons.

The Empire also provides a home of sorts – certainly a surrogate family – for Hilary (Olivia Colman) who pretty much runs the place. When she’s not at the theater, she has quiet Christmas’s alone or treats herself to a nice bath and a glass of wine.

Then a new hire shows up. He’s Stephen (Micheal Ward, very good), a handsome young Black man for whom things aren’t easy in Thatcher-ite England. Unexpectedly – or maybe too expectedly – a relationship develops between him and Hilary.

Meanwhile, skinheads roam the streets. Theater attendance dwindles. Hilary takes her lithium. And – I almost forgot: the Empire might get its moment in the light when it hosts the regional premier of “Chariots of Fire” which, it’s said, will be attended by everyone from the mayor to Laurence Olivier.

Olivia Colman stars in “Empires of Light”

Alas, Mendes simply takes on too much. The movie is a character study of a lonely and complicated woman. And a social study of race relations. And an elegy for/celebration of, ahem, the magic of the movies. You wonder why Toby Jones has been cast in the relatively small role of the theater projectionist, but you get it when he’s handed a superfluous but loving scene in which he carefully threads film (Yes!! Film!) through a projector.

“Empire of Light” has too much going for it to be a bad film. But it is, at times, a disappointing one.

Still, whenever you feel that Mendes has laid it all on too thick, just shift your attention to Coleman. She lays it on just right, whether flush with love, breaking down into hysterics or absent-mindedly running her hand along her theater’s burnished wall. What a talent she is – and how lucky we are to have her.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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