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Dreamland in Margate
Photograph: seanseyeview /

Explore the real-life Margate filming locations from Sam Mendes’s ‘Empire of Light’

Dreamland, Sands Café and Margate Old Town all feature in the Olivia Colman-starring movie

Written by
Amy Houghton

Thought January was a bit of a dead time for big movies? Think again. Legendary British director Sam Mendes is dropping his first solo screenwriting venture next week, and it’s set to be spectacular.

Empire of Light’ stars Olivia Colman and Colin Firth, and is basically one big love letter to cinema (one that also happens to explore weighty questions around race and mental health). Perhaps most excitingly, it has another major star in Margate, whose panoramic waterfront and sea views take centre stage in many scenes.

Want to know more about where ‘Empire of Light’ was shot? Here’s everything you need to know about the movie’s Margate filming locations.

Where was ‘Empire of Light’ filmed? 

Viewers can expect to see Mendes’s characters wander the streets of Margate Old Town, face tense confrontations in Sands Café and have tender heart-to-hearts on the steps to Margate Main Sands. 

Central to the film is Margate’s art-deco landmark Dreamland. Its vintage seaside theme park and former cinema (transformed into Empire Cinema in the film) are the central backdrops to the unlikely relationship that develops between cinema manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) and new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward). Those familiar with the iconic venue will also recognise the retro roller disco that Hilary and Stephen visit as Dreamland’s Roller Room. 

Cliftonville – Time Out’s coolest UK neighbourhood of 2022, fyi – also makes an appearance. It ranked number one in our list for its array of record shops, food stores and community-funded queer venues, but no doubt has quite a different vibe in this 1980s-set film.

Why did Sam Mendes choose Margate?

In a conversation with Visit Thanet, Mendes cited Margate’s rich cultural history as the reason he chose to film there. JMW Turner said its skies were among the most impressive in Europe and painted some of his most famous works there. 

It also happens to be where TS Eliot wrote ‘The Wasteland’, sat on a shelter by the cinema and overlooking the seafront. Mendes uses the very same shelter as the setting for Stephen to sit and reflect on his relationship with Hilary. ‘There’s a breadth about the place, which gives it poetry and a cinematic scope,’ Mendes said.

What year is ‘Empire of Light’ set in?

Sometime in the early 1980s, apparently.  

When is the film released?

‘Empire of Light’ will be released in UK cinemas on Monday January 9.

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