Year:  2022

Director:  Sam Mendes

Rated:  MA

Release:  March 2, 2023

Distributor: Disney

Running time: 115 minutes

Worth: $12.00
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Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Crystal Clarke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Brooke, Hannah Onslow

… an impeccably shot but ultimately misguided melodrama that once investigated past the sheen of the production falls into bathos over the pathos Mendes is desperately trying to inject in the work.

Sam Mendes’ first solo script for Empire of Light proves two things: he’s an accomplished director and he’s an awful writer. Empire of Light is beautifully directed, aided by the immense talents of award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, but beyond its glossy surface lies a story that is muddled and at times remarkably tone deaf.

Empire of Light is set in the very early 1980s at a Margate cinema called ‘The Empire’. Duty manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) works in a palace of faded glamour. Once a complex with a restaurant, four screens, and a bar, the gorgeous Art Deco building is now reduced to two screens showing films like The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz (wonderful films both). Despite being employed in a cinema, Hilary has no real interest in films – “They’re for the customers.” She is interested in poetry and can quote Tennyson at the drop of a hat.

Hilary is dealing with an unspecified mental illness (which considering she is given lithium is probably bipolar disorder) and is carrying on an unsatisfying affair with her married boss Mr Ellis (Colin Firth being particularly repulsive). Her cinema family is made up of the kindly Neil (Tom Brooke), goth girl Janine (Hannah Onslow) and projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), who views his 35mm projectors as his children. The family grows when a young Black man, Stephen (Micheal Ward from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Lovers Rock) is hired. It’s hopefully a stop gap job for him, as his life’s desire is to go to university and study architecture.

Stephen is a lover of culture and is particularly interested in the “Rude Boy” movement and Ska music – music that tried to bridge the gap between Black and White by using reggae beats in conjunction with post-punk social commentary. Janine and Stephen bond over the music of The Specials, leading Neil to comment that a relationship between the two is a forgone conclusion.

Instead, a delicate relationship develops between Hilary and Stephen. It’s easy to see what attracts Hilary to the sensitive young man (almost half her age) but harder to fathom what attracts Stephen to Hilary. Perhaps he senses a deep well of loneliness in her that mirrors his feelings of being an outsider in Thatcher’s increasingly racist Britain. As their romance forms a major part of the plot of the film, it flirts with the trope of the ‘magical negro’ that exists to teach the protagonist a lesson about life and elevate their lived experience.

Nevertheless, romance it is. Stephen is frustrated that Hilary seems to live in a bubble where she is unaware of the Brixton and Toxteth riots and the rise of the National Front. Hilary, of course, has had her own problems with a history of mental health episodes that stem somewhere from childhood abuse and dark relationships with men (her sexual liaisons with Mr Ellis is symbolic of her passivity in getting involved with cruel men, but beyond this, Mendes doesn’t elaborate). Hilary’s growing joy about her romance leads her to stop taking her medication, which the audience knows is going to cause real damage.

Meanwhile at The Empire, Mr Ellis is thrilled that the cinema will be the home to the South Coast opening of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire – a big affair that will be graced by celebrities and local politicians. It’s a coup for Ellis, who is essentially a very small fish in the cinematic pond. Mendes could not have chosen a more apt film to highlight; the kind of film that White people can watch and tut-tut about the ignorance and prejudice of the time.

Hilary is having another episode of mania and depression. Part of it stems from her lack of medication, but Mendes also suggests that part of it stems from Stephen calling her out for not supporting him when he was dealing with a deeply racist customer. When she attends the gala for Chariots of Fire and makes a very public scene in the foyer, we understand the depth of her illness and also how manipulative Mr Ellis has been – Hilary has kept the job in the cinema because social welfare have intervened, and Ellis was taking advantage of the fact that because of her mental health she was trapped in the position.

Eventually, Hilary’s breakdown leads to another hospitalisation. Stephen tries to understand what she’s going through but her mania has led to her becoming deeply paranoid and beyond the help of the young man. Eventually, he re-unites with his ex-girlfriend Ruby (Crystal Clarke) and we finally meet his mother Delia (Tanya Moodie), who has had the unenviable job of raising Stephen as a single mother and facing her own share of racism.

Hilary returns to The Empire, now under the control of Neil. Hilary asks Stephen if she shamed herself. She is subdued and sad, and Stephen cannot abandon her. No longer romantic, they are friends. Mendes, now done with his commentary on mental illness, moves to his sweeping statement on racism. A huge National Front march goes on in the seaside town and skinheads clocking the presence of Stephen in The Empire break the doors down to beat him. The palace of dreams is shattered again, this time with brutal force. Mendes is trying to posit that cinema is a place of utopian escape – a place where one can sit with strangers in the dark and not be seen, just communally enjoying the magic of film – the attack by the skinheads is by far his most heavy-handed metaphor. So heavy-handed that it reduces the real struggles the Black people faced in Britain to a “bit” about how such a sacred space can be invaded.

Olivia Colman really is a once in a generation actor and is steadfastly great as Hilary. Relative newcomer Micheal Ward is excellent, although neither can properly sell the romance between the characters. Even with the wonderful central performances, Empire of Light is a misguided attempt for Mendes to work his autobiographical memories into a film with veracity. When Hilary finally watches a film (she asks Norman to show her anything), it is Hal Ashby’s Being There. One has to wonder if somehow Mendes is making a statement that either Hilary or Stephen were each other’s Chauncey Gardiner.

Empire of Light is an impeccably shot but ultimately misguided melodrama that once investigated past the sheen of the production falls into bathos over the pathos Mendes is desperately trying to inject in the work. No tricks of light from Deakins, nor melancholy score by Reznor/Ross can disguise the fact that the film is all surface. Mendes remains a great director, but on his own as an author, he has a lot to learn about storytelling.