EMPIRE OF LIGHT – Review by Gadi Elkon

Sam Mendes reflective masterwork Empire of Light is now playing in select theaters.  Here is my view on why this is the best film of the year.

From Academy Award®-winning director and writer Sam Mendes, EMPIRE OF LIGHT is a moving drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times. Set in and around a faded old cinema in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, it follows Hilary (Olivia Colman) a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen (Micheal Ward), a new employee who longs to escape this provincial town in which he faces daily adversity. Both Hilary and Stephen find a sense of belonging through their unlikely and tender relationship and come to experience the healing power of music, cinema, and community.

Sam Mendes most personal film is also his first as a solo writer.  During the film’s official press conference, Sam mentioned that the film is both a remembrance of his own only-child youth but also an honest take on his mother.  He wrote the story with Olivia Colman in mind as Hilary allowing the amazing actress another incredible role to embody.  Her performance is staggering and subtle delivering a devastating sympathetic portrayal for our lead.  The stellar intimate cast led by newcomer Michael Ward, a stoic Toby Jones, a sleazy Colin Firth, a scene-stealing Tom Brooke and a vibrant Tanya Moodie perfectly inhabit the majestic setting of the theatre.  The unraveling of Hilary is mirrored beautifully by the many faces we see of the theater and changing community.

This marks the 5th time Mendes has worked with iconic DP Roger Deakins.  The precision shown in their last film, 1917, is now given a patient picturesque pace for this more personal tale.  Deakins one-of-a-kind ability to impart pure emotion and powerful connection with his cinematic touch giving this film a uniqueness in their catalog of collaborations.    The film seems the most connected to Mendes wonderful work with Conrad Hall on American Beauty and Road to Perdition.  Motifs aren’t front and center in a Deakins film compared to his fellow icon Conrad Hall but the scope, scale and pure brilliance are shared by these masters of light.  Mendes has crafted a film for Deakins to give his most Connie like cinematic landscape.  This film seems so much more bold of a choice when you realize the massive film experiences Mendes/Deakins have given us.  They have delivered their most tight and intimate work.

As a former manager for an arthouse theatre this film completely connected on so many levels.  The detailed pace used to show all the lovely touches of the majestic feel of the cinema had me on the verge of tears. Neal Callow’s art direction working off the production design of Mark Tildesley allow costume designer Alexandra Byrne’s 70s/80s era attire to standout. Add in the story elements of Hilary’s ever-changing moods and the emotional roller coaster we are on is always present.  Any scene involving Toby Jones imparts such thoughtful reflection as the always watching projectionist.  His showing a young Stephen the projection room is one of my favorite scenes in all of 2022.  Even the infamous cinema shot of the dust particles dancing through the projector’s light is heightened by Mendes/Deakins presence.


Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Selig Rating: 5 Stars

Running Time: 1h 59 min

Drama / Romance

Now Playing in Select Theaters, Everywhere December 23

Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Crystal Clarke, Tanya Moodie


The Selig Rating Scale:

5 Stars – Excellent movie, well worth the price.

4 Stars – Good movie

3 Stars – OK movie

2 Stars – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.

1 Star – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.

Toby Jones and Olivia Colman in EMIRE OF LIGHT. Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
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