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Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light (IMDB)

Empire of Light is a British-American romantic drama that focuses on the power of human connection during difficult times and is directed as a tribute to the magic of cinema. Source: Jesuit Media.

Set in an English coastal town in 1981, the film is directed, written and co-produced by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). 

Olivia Colman stars and was nominated as Best Actress in a Motion Picture in the 2023 Golden Globe Awards. The film has also been nominated for the quality of its cinematography in the 2023 Oscar Awards. 

Toby Jones plays a kindly projectionist in a local, faded, art deco cinema by the seaside, named the Empire. He passes meaningful comments on how his projector and its visual displays work. Hilary Small (Colman) is the duty manager of the cinema and enjoys the experience of cinema to release her from her obvious psychological distress. 

Hilary suffers from a bipolar disorder and lives alone on the coast of Kent near the Empire cinema. As assistant manager of the cinema in Margate, she is also experiencing a joyless, passionless affair with her ego-driven boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). 

Hilary forms a close relationship with a new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), who is hired as a movie usher in the cinema. He is attractive, witty and engaging, and is attracted to her. Hilary’s attraction to Stephen and his feeling for her evoke strong reactions in the town that result in physical violence. Stephen is Black, and the town is filled with white supremacists, who are enraged by Black people’s demands in Britain for equal rights.

Mendes directs the film expertly to show the splendour of cinema and he anchors the film’s plotline to complex social themes. The film urges redress of the tensions it raises, but resolution of them must wait for a different kind of movie.

Review by Peter W Sheehan, Jesuit Media

Empire of Light: Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Sara Stewart. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language). 115 min.


Empire of Light  (By Peter W Sheehan, Jesuit Media via Australian Catholics