Empire Of Light | Picturehouse Recommends

Sam Mendes’ emotionally resonant drama, is a tribute to the way movies – and music and poetry – can provide a balm during turbulent times.

Steph Watts

06 Jan 23

Sam Mendes

Release Date
20 January

Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth


Running Time
119 mins

The return to the cinema after the pandemic is still something that feels like a miraculous event to many people. So it's no surprise that Empire Of Light, Sam Mendes' emotionally resonant drama, is a tribute to the way movies – and music and poetry – can provide a balm during turbulent times.

Academy Award winner Olivia Colman plays Hilary, a lonely, middle-aged woman working at a rundown cinema on the Margate seafront in the 1980s. There she meets new hire Stephen (BAFTA winner Micheal Ward), and the two begin a relationship built on not only a mutual attraction but a shared feeling of loneliness that abates when they're together. 

Colman and Ward have a tender chemistry that carries the majority of the film – one of them is almost always on screen.

A host of British talent, new and well established, join the two leads. Colin Firth's cinema manager is very proud to be hosting a regional Chariots Of Fire premiere and Toby Jones considers the magic of celluloid as Norman, the philosophical projectionist. 

Hannah Onslow and Crystal Clarke lead the younger generation, filling any room they enter with their energy and talk of fast-moving trends in the subcultures emerging in Britain in the early '80s. 

By putting Hilary and Stephen together, the film presents two paths of response to the divide between young and old: either fear time slipping through your fingers and resent those who will move on and leave you behind, or embrace it and revel in human connections at the moment they're made, even if they may be fleeting. 

This group of characters each have some experience to offer, and though not all of those may be pleasant, living through both joy and pain is what makes us human.

The cast may dazzle with their prowess, but the other star of the film is the cinema itself. Through Roger Deakins' unparalleled eye for beauty, the once-majestic Empire – played by Margate's famous Dreamland cinema – shines with a strange, haunted beauty as Hilary and Stephen explore its secret upper rooms, now home to a roost of pigeons but easy to imagine in their former glory.

Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – by now well known on the film score scene through their work with David Fincher – lend their soulful piano to scenes of Hilary and Stephen as challenges in their personal lives force their relationship to shift.

Empire Of Light is more than just a valentine to movies. It is ultimately a winning expression of the importance of intimacy and interaction, how it's not just the movies that make a cinema but also the staff who provide a tangible sense of community and comradeship.

At one point Norman says about movies, this is "the magic of life, at 24 frames per second". As Mendes film persuasively argues, there is magic available in the foyer too: the people selling tickets and popcorn, be it salted or sweet.   Steph Watts

Quick Q&A

Sam Mendez

Why did you set Empire Of Light in the '80s? For most people, their most formative period is their teenage years. For me, that was the late '70s and early '80s. The music, the movies, the pop culture of that period generally formed who I was. It was a period of great political upheaval in the UK, with a great deal of very incendiary racial politics – but at the same time, an amazing period for music and for culture generally – very creative, very politicised, very energised.

How would you describe Hilary, played by Olivia Colman? Hilary is a middle-aged woman who lives alone on the coast and has worked in the cinema for a few years. She has a complicated past and some demons of her own but, in the way that ad-hoc families can support each other, she has been embraced by this eccentric bunch that work in the cinema. She's struggling to find a meaningful relationship in her life, when Stephen, who is open-hearted and gentle but still very young, also comes to work there.

Why did you choose Olivia? Olivia is very available and open, and yet also somehow mysterious. For me, that's what makes her so extraordinary, along with her amazing skill.

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Empire Of Light is in cinemas from 9 January — Book Now