New Zealand trailer and release date for cinematic love letter Empire of Light

You wait so long for a revered director to make a semiautobiographical film about how cinema shaped them as a youth, and then suddenly a whole bunch come along at once. We’ve had Steven Spielberg’s excellent The Fabelmans, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s oblique Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, and now here comes Sam Mendes’ (American Beauty, Skyfall) Empire of Light, which is hitting cinemas on March 2.

Making his debut as solo writer as well as director, Mendes takes us to a dying cinema in gloomy seaside England at the dawn of the ‘80s, where lonely, dedicated manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) might have found a new lease on life thanks to the arrival of new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward), with whom she embarks on an affair. But Stephen is Black, which makes him—and, by extension, her— a target in Thatcherite Britain.

Around them cohere a coterie of characters, including Colin Firth’s lecherous, exploitative boss and Toby Jones’ quiet, thoughtful projectionist, with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, 1917) contrasting their small, quotidian lives against the vast screens of the picture palace and the epic stories projected against them.

Empire of Light is a little bit Cinema Paradiso in the way it ruminates on the magic of cinema and its power to heal, but Mendes’ specificity is what counts here: within the fleapit, movies like Taxi Driver, Chariots of Fire, and Being There play, while without National Front skinheads prowl the streets looking for people of colour to brutalise, the film evoking both the art and politics of its period setting.

Colman, one of the best actors of her generation—or any other, come to think of it—is in excellent form here as the brittle, yearning Hilary and, all other considerations aside, it’d be churlish to not see this love letter to cinema in an actual cinema, so mark the date.