Empire of Light – a slightly muddled love letter to cinema

Empire of Light

At home, 23rd January 2023

I really wanted to like everything about this film. I wanted it to be like when I came out of The Artist on an early date with Mark at the art deco Electric Cinema in Birmingham and feel like the world is looking inside my head and making films just for me. Not necessarily consciousness-changing films, but ones that make me feel warm and fuzzy. I knew that I was going to get on board with a lot of this film: set in an old cinema, 1980s setting, Olivia Colman, Toby Jones, projection rooms, Sam Mendes… and so I was very excited as I sat down on my own last night with a G&T and some cola bottles, because I am both middle aged and a child.

Of course I loved the cinema setting. I grew up with The Electric Palace in Bridport (pictures on the left) as my main cinema, was in the Lyme Regis Regent Cinema (RIP) film club (top right) at 16 and when I lived in Helsinki had a friend who worked at the iconic Bio Rex (bottom left) who used to give me free tickets. I am obsessed with the idea of old projectors, reels of films, waiting for the cigarette holes and the amazing trickery of watching 24 frames a second come to life. I know the power of film and being in that warm (not the Dorchester Plaza), dark space and being moved to another place. I totally get what Sam Mendes was trying to do and I loved all elements of that, especially the opening shot of turning the lights on, Toby Jones explaining the projector and Olivia Colman luxuriating in the feeling of watching a film. The Roger Deakins cinematography was, of course, beautiful and I want to retire immediately and spend every afternoon at the cinema in run-down seaside towns.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just two hours of that as that may not have been a commercial success. Despite my attitude, I did like the other strands of narrative: the racial tensions in the UK, Olivia Colman’s character’s abuse by men and breakdown, the love story, the coming of age of Michael Ward’s character, but it just felt like a lot. I didn’t feel that any of those elements were dealt with in enough detail or with any subtlety and I don’t think Sam Mendes’s strength is in his dialogue as a lot seemed very clunky and just existed without time to examine it or think about it on a deeper level. The acting was beautiful and Michael Ward was completely hypnotic to watch, but it just felt a bit superficial and therefore left me slightly jangling as nothing was fully considered or explored and consequently I didn’t know what to do with my emotions (although that may have been the sugar from the cola bottles). Despite its shortcomings, we’ll always have Toby Jones as the projectionist.

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4 thoughts on “Empire of Light – a slightly muddled love letter to cinema

  1. Lovely memories. Thank you for a great review.

  2. Absolutely – nothing better than a good old flea pit.
    Pass me the Revels.

  3. Francesca Hurdley says:

    Enjoyed this so much- especially the memories of the EP and Lyme – just wondering whether to go to see Empire of Light or not having read your review! xxxk

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