Empire of Light is billed as one of the shining lights (excuse the pun) of London Film Festival …
Starring big hitters Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Micheal Ward (Blue Story) and Colin Firth (Supernova). Set in the English seaside town of Margate, it purported to be “a powerful and poignant story about human connection and the magic of cinema, from Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes”. What it actually is, is a film full of half-baked lazy storylines in this ode to a supposedly golden age of cinema from Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (1917, Skyfall).
Set in 1980-1981, during the time of Margaret Thatcher, high unemployment, a recession and spiralling racism (sounds familiar …) the film starts out following our protagonist Hilary (Olivia Colman) who is the general manager of the Empire Cinema which sits on the seafront. It turns out she has had some mental health issues, is newly released from hospital and is getting on with life, whilst completely numbed by the Lithium she is taking for her schizophrenia. Hilary is having a pretty grimy affair with her manager at the cinema Mr Eliis (Colin Firth), who is clearly taking advantage of a vulnerable employee whilst getting his rocks off, until Stephen (Micheal Ward) comes along. Young, exciting and Black, Stephen literally breathes life into Hilary. What ensues, without too many spoilers, is a woman literally coming undone.
Whilst this is all happening, we don’t learn much about Stephen at all. What we do find out is disappointingly stereotypical. Which is exactly what happens when you have the white gaze developing Black characters without consultation?; Windrush – check, absent father – check, sexualisation of the Black man – check, plagued by racism – check.
Stephen and Hilary’s relationship develops, with almost devastating consequences, until both characters reach some kind of redemption. The underdeveloped storyline of Stephen however, doesn’t take away from what is a stellar performance by Ward, delivered with real heart and power. Colman also gives a standout performance as Hilary, who mirrors the sometimes dark and old-fashioned cinema she presides over, with its mothballed two upper screens, now covered in years of dust and ruled by pigeons.
It’s a real shame that Ward is wasted in this piece which is clearly a vehicle for Colman. The development of the relationship between Hilary and Stephen felt inauthentic. A young Black man arrives at his new job and the first person he desires is a dowdy middle-aged White woman with whom he has nothing in common. Why? How? And the fact that Stephen’s journey had to be told with racism at the heart felt unnecessary and forced. I long for the day when Black characters are just characters, not caricatures and racism isn’t the underpinning of our stories.
Empire of Light is absolutely Mendes’ love letter to a golden age of cinema visually. There are some truly beautiful shots of the Empire Cinema, both inside and out. With some great insight into the projectionist’s room and the almost ritualistic loading of the camera reels. Margate also looks glorious, but unfortunately, not glorious enough to save this film.
A few pockets of light in this film from Mendes but certainly not an empire.
Empire Of Light in cinemas Friday 13th January 2023