Monday, January 16, 2023

Empire of Light – thematically abundant but ultimately tender and emotional

For Hilary (played by Olivia Colman), the Empire cinema in the seaside town of Margate is a place of respite and distraction. A place to return to after treatment for sunnier days. A workplace to pour her energy into from the start of the day right through until after the last customer has left. Though a place marred by the carnal demands of the cinema manager (Colin Firth), whose vile manner is epitomised by the line: “your arse feels so good in my hands”.

For Stephen (Michael Wright), the Empire is a place of gradual belonging, a substitute for a frustrated college application. A place where this young black man can find other fans surfing the vibrant wave of two-tone music, and where he falls for a woman old enough to be his mother. Though ‘Empire’ also refers to an ugly cloud of racism and the ensuing verbal and physical abuse that he endures from customers and marauding skinheads.

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light (and his first solo screenwriting credit) touches powerfully on mental health and racist attitudes. He explores what it means to be idly complicit and to not challenge what’s obviously wrong around you. It’s also about family and what happens when colleagues bother to look out for each other.

Empire of Light is also – and goodness knows which of these themes is meant to be the primary one – an ode to cinema: as a place where other pasts and other futures can offer a couple of hours of escapism, as a community full of wonderful people. Has the phrase “show me a film” ever before been imbued with such pent-up emotion that risks flooding a cinema’s carpeted floor? When Colman smiles, her character’s radiance lights up the on-screen 1981 cinema and the faces of the 2023 audience. When she switches to make Hilary down and sad, everyone is forlorn and retreats into themselves.

To adapt a line from the film, who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare, Empire of Light’s call to action might be summed up as “to intervene, or not to intervene, that is the question”.

Stephen must decide how far to push into Hilary’s depressed withdrawal. Toby Jones’ projectionist Norman at first appears seems to be a grumpy distraction in his scenes, before an overly abrupt change of personality that foretells Hilary’s growing self-awareness and her intervention that reveals the personal burden Norman has been carrying. Later Stephen’s mother unexpectedly intervenes instead of interfering.

Mendes throws a lot into the script and his direction. There’s a pigeon-with-a-broken wing metaphor that is anything but subtle. Though it’s still lovely to watch. Hilary’s dialogue is laden with rhetoric (“well you can’t just give up … you have to go out and get it”) she should obviously be obeying before offering as advice to others. If there was an Oscar for staring, Colman and Ward would be joint winners on 12 March. There is a lot of earnest poetry. The cross-generational bond is believable, although their sex is both distant and tinted with a coating of male gaze. And bravo for an ending that is courageous enough to offer hope without actual resolution or surety.

Ultimately, for me the lumpiness of the storytelling takes second place to the tender relationship that builds up between Hilary and Stephen. And it’s definitely a celebration of Roger Deakins’ fine cinematography. If you can catch a 35mm screening of Empire of Light in the Queen’s Film Theatre – [edit] or the Strand Arts Centre! – sit near the back. Allow the noise of the projector and the spinning reels add to the soundscape, and your awareness of the cue marks burnt into the celluloid pre-empt the on-screen explanation.

Empire of Light is playing digitally in most local cinemas, and there’s a 35mm screening each day for the first week at Queen’s Film Theatre and also at Strand Arts Centre.

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