Perhaps Kent’s biggest role yet, 2023 sees our very own Margate taking centre stage as the setting for Academy Award® winning director and writer Sam Mendes’ latest release, Empire of Light, starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward and Colin Firth.
With its beautifully portrayed characters, and story that tells the tale of love, life and the power of human connection and community, we couldn’t be more excited to see Kent’s coastal town star as the backdrop to this moving drama. In honour of its role and in anticipation for the film’s UK release on 9th January, we’re taking a set-jetting tour of Margate, and sharing some of the key locations that help bring this vibrant tale to life.
Dreamland Margate AKA The Empire Cinema (and so much more)
With its art-deco architecture and role as one of the UK’s most treasured seaside destinations, it’s no wonder Mendes placed Dreamland as the backdrop to Hilary and Stephen’s relationship, which reflects the pop-culture, passions, and turbulence of the 80s. Starring as the faded Empire Cinema, Dreamland can be seen throughout, first and foremost bringing Hilary, played by Olivia Colman, a cinema manager struggling with her mental health, and Stephen, played by Micheal Ward, a new employee facing adversity and racial tension in 1980s Britain, together through the power of film and music.
Trust us, with shots of Dreamland’s iconic frontage, the wonderful set of the ballroom (prepare for some sensational views), and even the rides themselves, you won’t need eagle eyes to spot its close-ups. While the Dreamland rooftop isn’t open to the public, the view of the Margate seafront is instantly recognisable as Stephen and Hilary stand high above the town ringing in the New Year. Insider tip, we recommend pulling up a chair at Dreamland’s Cinque Ports pub and restaurant for slightly lower down, though no less beautiful, sea views.
With so much to offer through its incredible architecture, Dreamland was used in scene after scene. Dreamland frequenters will instantly recognise the fun fair, as Dreamland’s very own vintage amusement park (it’s hard to miss that iconic 1920s Chair-O-Plane in the background as Hilary and Stephen discuss the future), while those who visited back in the day will know Empire as the former Dreamland Cinema. The roller rink scene which sees Stephen and the Empire team spin across the floor, is instantly recognisable as Dreamland’s Roller Room, a favourite retro disco where visitors can still test out their moves!
While the Empire’s neon sign has since been switched back to Dreamland’s own name in lights, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage some of the key shots from the film once you arrive in Margate. As tension builds in the second half of the film, we get a long glimpse of Dreamland’s art deco frontage as the Empire prepares for its greatest moment yet, the premiere of 1981 drama Chariots of Fire.
As for why Margate was chosen, it’s no surprise that for this visually stunning film, it was all about its aesthetics. Mendes has highlighted the visual inspiration that has drawn creatives to the town time and time again, from J.M.W Turner, to T.S. Eliot, “I was drawn to this particular place because it offered so much opportunity in the scale of the visual landscape. It’s where J. M. W. Turner painted most of his famous paintings – he went there because he said that the skies were the finest in Europe. It’s where T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, sitting in a bus shelter just outside of the cinema looking out over the beach and the grey sea that sits beyond. There’s a breadth about the place, which gives it poetry and a cinematic scope.”
It's no shock then that Mendes used that very shelter in one of the film’s most reflective scenes as Stephen looks out over the tidal pool, contemplating his relationship with Hilary, with those Margate skies stretched out across from him.
Margate’s seascapes shine throughout, with atmospheric snowy views across the harbour and Margate Main Sands from those first opening shots. But while many shots can be recreated on a visit to the seafront, it may surprise you to learn that the art deco lobby, which overlooks those big sea skies and is the centre for some of the film’s most climactic moments, was specially created on the steps down from Dreamland. While the team have since dismantled the set (sorry, you’ll find no 1980s-style Maltesers from the concessions stand here), viewers will soon recognise those steps as the location for one of the film’s most tear-jerking scenes between Stephen and Hilary (and we’ll say no more than that!).
The beach and the tidal pool, however, is all Margate. The steps down to Margate Main Sands are of course the location where Stephen has a heart to heart with Neil, his ever-caring and humorous co-worker, over tea (infinitely re-creatable with Margate’s many nearby cafes), and the Harbour Arm is lit up from above as fireworks rain on NYE. But one of the moments that truly moved us features the tidal pool as Stephen and Hilary skim stones and discuss their very different childhoods, life, and the turbulence of the 1980s Riots.
As for the other notable locations, we’ll lead on. Step off the train in Margate and you’ll instantly recognise the final, triumphant moment as Stephen boards his train, with the ticket hall featuring on screen. Leaving the station, you’ll spot Arlington House, AKA the location of Stephen’s family flat, while Sands Café right on the beach is the perfect spot to stop off for lunch and the chance to recreate Hilary learning of Stephen’s plans for the future (tissues at the ready). With its vintage feel and blue and white checked tiles, Marina Café was another perfect choice from Mendes for deep conversations between Stephen and Neil. While Wildes restaurant in the Old Town features in a particularly tense scene involving Hilary, Colin Firth’s character, Donald, and his wife, played by Sara Stewart, making it worthy of a stop off for cocktails and brunch!
We certainly haven’t listed every location, and with Mendes’ beautiful portrayal of so many of Margate’s hidden gems, we could never expect to. Scene after scene delivers breath-taking shots of one of our favourite coastal towns, and with the film spanning all four seasons, Mendes truly captures those panoramic views. Once you’ve watched the film on the big screen from 9th January, we encourage you to take a look and explore Margate for yourself. By using the Empire of Light Film Locations Map (also due to be released on 9th January), you can find the exact spots where movie magic has taken place in the coastal town, as well as additional things to see and do in the nearby area. Embrace the retro feel of the film, the wonder of the coast, and follow in the footsteps of Stephen, Hilary and the loveable Empire team.