Empire of Light: trailer, release date, cast and everything we know about the Olivia Colman movie

Empire of Light movie fireworks
(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

The latest offering from director Sam Mendes, Empire of Light, is here to remind you of the magic of the movies. To help with that are the likes of Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, Michael Ward and more.

Empire of Light lands just in time to join the slate of the new 2022 movies after getting its first look at some of the biggest international film festivals this fall, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

Here is everything that we know about Empire of Light.

Empire of Light release date

Empire of Light is now playing in the US, check your local theater website or Fandango to find out where. UK general audiences can see it in a few weeks, starting January 9.

Empire of Light plot

Empire of Light writer/director Sam Mendes says that the movie is one of his most personal works to date. Here is the official synopsis:

"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 a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen, 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."

Empire of Light cast

Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light

Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light (Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

The incomparable Olivia Colman headlines Empire of Light along with Michael Ward.

Colman, who is an Oscar-winner for The Favourite, was nominated again for 2021’s The Lost Daughter and has recently been seen in Heartstopper, is set to play a character named Hilary Small. Her performance has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress — Drama. 

Ward is playing a character named Stephen. The winner of BAFTA’s 2020 Rising Star Award, Ward has previously been seen in Blue Story, The Old Guard, Small Axe, The A-List and Top Boy.

The movie features another Oscar winner in Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Mr. Ellis, while the rest of the cast is made up of Tom Brooke (Preacher, Bodyguard), Sara Stewart (La Fortuna, The Night Manager), Crystal Clarke (Sanditon, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain), Tanya Moodie (The Man Who Fell to Earth, A Discovery of Witches) and Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), among others.

While not part of the cast, there are number of behind the scenes individuals who are worth mentioning: Roger Deakins is handling the cinematography for the movie after having previously worked with Sam Mendes on Skyfall and 1917; and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the music.

Empire of Light trailer

An Empire of Light trailer has been released, to go along with the previously released teaser trailer. Olivia Colman looks to be on point once again, affirming that she is one of the best actresses working today. Check out the trailers below:

Empire of Light reviews — what the critics are saying

The reviews for Empire of Light aren't among the best of Sam Mendes' career. The Oscar-winning director's latest movie currently (as of December 9) has a 47% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It does a bit better on Metacritic, where is has a score of 55.

Despite the general attitude toward the movie, many of Empire of Light's performances have received strong notes, including Olivia Colman's and Michael Ward's.

How long is Empire of Light?

Empire of Light clocks in at just under two hours, with a runtime of one hour and 59 minutes.

What is Empire of Light rated?

Empire of Light is rated R in the US for "sexual content, language and brief violence." The UK has not given the movie an official rating at this time.

Sam Mendes movies

Sam Mendes is an Oscar-winning director who is once again stepping behind the camera with Empire of Light. In addition to serving as the movie’s director, Mendes is also the lone credited writer; the story is said to be a personal one for him. This is only Mendes second writing credit in his career and his first as a standalone writer (the other was 1917). 

Mendes has been much more prolific as a director since he broke out in 1999 with his Oscar win for American Beauty. Here is his full directing resume:

  • American Beauty (1999)
  • Road to Perdition (2002)
  • Jarhead (2005)
  • Revolutionary Road (2008)
  • Away We Go (2009)
  • Skyfall (2012)
  • King Lear (2014)
  • Spectre (2015)
  • The Lehman Trilogy (2019)
  • 1917 (2019)

Empire of Light poster

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)
Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.