Review: Empire Of Light

Empire Of Light


A road to nowhere

In the seaside town of Margate in 1980’s Britain, Hilary (Olivia Colman) works as a duty manager in the Empire cinema. Struggling with her recovery from a mental breakdown suffered the previous year, she engages in an affair with her married boss Mr Ellis (Colin Firth) and struggles with loneliness and disconnection. The arrival of new employee Stephen (Michael Ward), frequently the victim of racist taunting and attacks, changes Hilary’s life when the two embark on a friendship and then later a romance, but Hilary’s fragile mental health threatens to derail everything.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a miserable film. Movies that attempt to engage us through a depiction of extreme emotional distress are as valuable to the experience of visual media as anything else, as are films that match this with a depiction of extreme physical distress. But, and this is the crucial thing, it is very easy for these kinds of stories to stumble into the darker well of what I feel is best described as “misery porn”: stories that choose not to offer a source of healing or redemption very deliberately, or whose offerings of such things come off as hollow additions to a narrative that has not done enough to earn them. I regret to say that Sam Mendes’ latest feels like one of those films to me: a production whose tacked on happy ending feels at odds with the depth of unhappiness that it chooses to portray for its first 100 or so minutes.

I suppose to put it another way, I don’t really see the throughline here, the message for lack of a better term. The Hilary character is a miserable woman stuck in an unfulfilling life with no social prospects beyond the occasional office tryst with her married boss, Stephen deals with repeated racists attacks that eventually cross the line from verbal into physical, but Empire Of Light never really seems to grasp that a bare depiction of these things isn’t really enough. If it is just meant to be a character study of sorts, then it would be better off focusing on just one of those characters, and the relationship between the two of them, one whose inappropriateness from both an age and employment perspective is never adequately explored, doesn’t really cover the same kind of ground.

Severe mental health issues and racism are very weighty subjects to tackle, and I don’t deny that it is possible for both to be tackled in one film. But not like this I think. Essentially what we have with Empire Of Light is a film where the main narrative is about an aging white woman dealing with her personal demons, and the young man facing violent racist abuse is just some sort of awkward attachment to that plot, largely lacking character himself outside of being a victim of racism. The Stephen character feels like a sacrificial lamb the moment that you meet him: the writing, the cinematography, the music, the background, it all seems tailor made for you to feel like some deeply unpleasant fate is going to befall him, and thus it does fall out. It’s hard to disassociate his fate from a meta-connection to his relationship with Hilary, a Spring/Autumn romance of little exceptionality, but it isn’t really: instead it’s something worse, just something that randomly seems to happen to him. Hilary’s travails with her mental health are not nothing, but they pale in comparison to that which Patrick is experiencing (and spare me from a middle-aged white woman “discovering” racism exists), so the film just feels naturally unbalanced.

Beyond that this is the oft-terrible “film about films”, or rather “film about cinemas” (it has to be the latter, since only Toby Jones, playing the projectionist, seems to actually like films). It’s hard to do after Cinema Paradiso, and I note that not many people have tried since 1988. But Mendes does give it a go. The end result is not terribly satisfying: I can appreciate the director’s desire to get across just why he loves these buildings, these old fashioned projectors, the “beam of light” that facilitates this wholly unique community activity, but it’s all too easy with such things to stay into the realm of of an overly-nostalgic haze. Many directors these days are at pains to try and save cinemas from the perceived spectre of streaming, and I think that Mendes’ approach to the topic in Empire Of Light is a part of that. But the world has moved on, and a thoughtful look at how projectionists changed reels in the middle of films, or discussions of the phi phenomenon, don’t really cut it. In the end Empire Of Light doesn’t really adequately make a case for the salvation of cinemas, choosing by the end to focus on the individual effect of film: the last act is headlined by a solitary figure watching a film in a cinema, the former diatribes on collective experience forgotten. She could have been sitting at home.

Where Empire Of Light does find some redemption in my eyes is in its cast, which is uniformly pretty great: Colman, Ward, Firth and Jones all put in good shifts, with Colman’s occasional bursts of emotion all powerful moments in her own right, as she rails against the weakness of men in general and the cruelty she experienced from her mother. There’s also the look, which shouldn’t be all that surprising seeing as how it is Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. Right from the opening frames there is something very captivating about what Empire Of Light is doing from a visual perspective, a constant dichotomy between the shabbiness of life’s reality mixing with the elegance of the titular cinema and how it makes things look radically different with a few well-placed lights and curtains. Much time is spent in the cinema’s disused upper floor, a once thriving restaurant/dance club now fallen into ruin, where the small touches of class – the evident colour, the piano, the spectacular view from its windows – help you to look past the doldrums – the faded façade, the silence of the piano, the view of a rainy, windswept town – that are unavoidable at first glance.

Sam Mendes has done better than this, and not too long ago. His 1917 will live long in the memory of an example of how spectacular the process of filmmaking can be in the right hands. But this effort to do the same for the concept of film in a meta level falls well short of such lofty peaks. It’s too downbeat in its message, too diluted in its approach to racism and too fuelled with blinding nostalgia in its efforts to glorify the very existence of cinemas themselves: it’s obvious that Mendes is working some stuff out about his past with Empire Of Light, but that doesn’t make it a good experience. A good cast and some frequently good cinematography only partially obfuscate these flaws. This may well have been awards bait of a kind, and if so it badly missed the mark. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Searchlight Pictures).

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