REVIEW: Empire of Light (2022)

I have emerged from Sam Mendes’ new drama Empire of Light more than a little ambivalent about it; indeed, I find myself tremendously frustrated. This English drama, set in a seaside down in the early 1980s, stars Olivia Colman as a miserable woman working as the duty manager of a run-down cinema. When a young black man (Michael Ward) is hired to join the front-of-house team, they strike up an unexpected friendship that turns into a sexual tryst and then a touching romance. The cast – which includes Toby Jones, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, and Colin Firth – is uniformly excellent. The photography by Roger Deakins is rich and resonant. The musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is sensitively composed and atmospheric. Mendes’ screenplay, and I believe this is his first, is well intentioned but structurally incompetent.

It is a film-breaker. Take a step back and it becomes clear just how much a decent film relies on its script. Imagine you are building a house. The screenplay is the foundation, laying down support on which all the other production elements can safely stand. Mendes has eschewed concrete and steel in favour of moss and sticky tape. His house is pretty to look at for sure, and resembles other very attractive homes along the street, but gently kick a wall and emergency services will be digging you out of the rubble.

Hilary (Colman) begins the film in the aftermath of an unspoken mental health crisis. She is regularly seeing a doctor, and he has prescribed lithium to keep her calm and well-adjusted. It is having a numbing effect on her: she lives in quiet isolation consisting of her job, dining alone in restaurants with a book for company, and passionless sex with her married employer (Firth). When she meets new usher Stephen (Ward) it is like an emotional spring clean: he makes her happier, more relaxed, and fulfilled. She is so happy that she decides to stop taking her medication – with predictable results.

It is here that the film does the strangest thing. Up to this point Hilary has been our viewpoint character. We see the other characters solely from her perspective. When she starts to slip into schizophrenic episodes, Mendes abruptly shifts the viewpoint to Stephen. It has a jarring effect. The opportunity to follow Hilary through her emotional struggle is ignored, and instead she becomes some one-dimensional cackling demon in a darkened apartment. She becomes fodder for Stephen’s story rather than the protagonist of her own. The issue of mental illness, which has provided a valuable focus to many great features, becomes sensationalistic grist for somebody else’s movie.

What is particularly galling is that Mendes does this not once but twice. The spectre of violent anti-black racism is raised frequently through the film but is never fleshed out or interrogated. We see a few skinheads hassle Stephen, and a racist customer gets in his face. Margaret Thatcher, whose odious government led to so much of the intolerance of the 1980s, is name-checked once but not addressed in any meaningful way. Suddenly there is a skinhead march in town and Stephen is badly beaten. He isn’t beaten to further his own character – indeed later in hospital he seems to claim such violence is par for the course and doesn’t seem traumatised at all. Instead we appear to be subjected to such crude, provocative violence because Mendes wants Hilary to realise that there is racism in 1980s England. It is black trauma for the purposes of white self-improvement. It is appallingly done.

Suspended over everything is a vaguely defined, almost sidelined paean to the transcendent nature of motion pictures. Toby Jones appears in the film as the cinema’s projectionist Norman, a fussy little stereotype of a character, whose entire story purpose consists of wistful monologues about how machinery and light turn still images into human story. A critical flaw in the film is that it does not feel in itself like a particularly human story. We barely set food inside the theatre itself. No one bar Norman and Stephen seem to actually care about what the Empire Cinema is screening at all. In one telling scene, several key cast members have a furious altercation in the building’s lobby. You can faintly hear Vangelis’ theme to Chariots of Fire emanating from the theatre, but nobody cares. It, like the entire ‘majesty of cinema’ theme, is window dressing. There have been plenty of films made about cinema. Despite the talent involved, this is no Cinema Paradiso. This isn’t even The Majestic.

I do not think Sam Mendes really understood what he wanted to make here. A tribute to cinema? A profile of the black experience in 1980s Britain? An old-fashioned cross-generational romance? A mental health struggle? He tries to make all of them at once, and winds up making none of them. Empire of Light looks great, sounds great, and – if you are willing to view it entirely on a superficial level – plays like an enjoyable simulacra of other much better films. Those foundations are going to get you, though. The house is shaking.

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