“Empire Of Light” is not a movie about movies, or about movie theaters. It’s about the people who work in such a venue: the ticket seller, the concessionaire, the projectionist, and the ushers.

The place they work is The Empire, a grand art-deco palace on the English seaside in 1981. It has fallen on hard times. Only two of its auditoriums are still open, while the ones further upstairs, in addition to a big open event space, have been closed to the public for quite a while.

Writer/director Sam Mendes didn’t set out to make a paean to motion pictures, opting instead for the personal stories of the employees. Chief among them is Hilary (Olivia Colman), who sells candy up front but has never sat down to watch a film in the many years she’s worked there. She’s involved with the theater’s manager, Donald (Colin Firth), a married man who exploits Hilary by regularly asking her to his office for a quickie or a handjob.

Hilary, a shy woman with mental health issues, sees her world change when Stephen (Michael Ward) joins the staff. He’s kind to her and, despite the difference in their ages, makes Hilary happy to have him in her life. Stephen has his own issues, most prominently that he’s a Black man in an area where skinheads and other racists want to beat and/or kill him. Thus, when he’s on a bus with his arm around Hilary, he removes it when a young white guy gets on. He knows there’s a threat around every corner — there were real race riots and white supremacist marches across England that year — and even the front doors of the theater won’t shield him from the vicious hatred outside.

The most empathetic character at The Empire is Norman (Toby Jones), the very precise projectionist who loves the machines and the medium of film. Alone among the employees, he has a technical skill beyond those of his colleagues who sweep up the popcorn on the theater floor every night. He also has an appreciation for the movies he’s showing, including “Stir Crazy,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “Being There.” His crowning moment will come when the theater is chosen to host the world premiere of “Chariots Of Fire,” complete with VIPs in attendance.

“Empire Of Light” is Sam Mendes’ first movie since “1917,” his brilliant cinematic achievement about World War I, which came in second on my Best Movies Of 2020 list. His new one will likely make this year’s list. It’s such a pleasure to watch, particularly on a big screen, with characters who are fully developed, relatable, and acted to perfection by a top-notch cast led by Colman, who is exceptional.

I give “Empire Of Light” an 8.5 out of 10.