Sam Mendes | 1hr 59min
The staff who work at the fading Empire Cinema in the coastal English town of Kent are a strange assortment of passionless locals. Teenagers who would rather be anywhere else collect tickets, duty manager Hilary has never even considered sitting down to watch a movie, and every day she is called into the office of her apathetic boss to carry out a loveless affair. Still, there are sparks of life to be found in unexpected places. The projectionist Norman, played with gentle spirit by Toby Jones, may be the sole employee who possesses a sincere love for his job and film as an art form. That is, until he is joined by the young, charismatic Stephen, who seeks to draw out the hidden beauty residing in his co-workers and the establishment itself.
As a result, there is a mirroring of sorts that Sam Mendes unfolds between the two main targets of his attention – Hilary, and the abandoned upper floor of the cinema that once shone bright in its glory days. Tragic beauty is instilled in both character and setting, rendered with remarkable poignancy through Olivia Colman’s thorny performance, and Roger Deakins’ marvellously golden-lit cinematography.
The latter especially is gorgeous to behold, shedding a soft, golden glow across the building’s regal red theatres, Art Deco exteriors, and the dusty unused ballroom where Hilary and Stephen frequently escape. Yellow dots of distant light break up the darkness outside its windows, and from its balcony Deakins captures a precious moment shared between the two lovers as they wondrously gaze at the New Year’s Eve fireworks bursting in the night sky. This is their world that no one else can touch, isolating them in a bubble separated from society’s conservative judgements of their age gap and interracial relationship.
And yet Empire of Light is not a romance. Hilary is a far more troubled, complicated figure than she initially appears, concealing her bipolar diagnosis and previous residence in a psychiatric hospital from Stephen until it all comes spilling to the surface. Those mood swings we might initially assume are mere slips in her temper grow more uncontrollable as she falls harder in love, and there is a deliberate awkwardness on Colman’s part which keeps us at a distance, especially when she starts stomping on sandcastles like a sulking child. At the same time, she is also revitalised by Stephen’s youthful energy, allowing her to break from old habits and develop a greater sense of self-worth. Hilary is a woman of many contradictions, lifting her to ecstatic heights as easily as they send her crashing to devastating lows.
The subplot of racial prejudice and violence which lingers on the edges of her relationship with Stephen isn’t integrated quite as smoothly. The skinheads who haunt street corners, throw slurs, and march in nationalistic rallies down main roads are an extension of the era’s conservative Thatcherism, though it often acts more like a parallel story than part of a larger narrative. As hopeful and saccharine as Empire of Light can be at times, Mendes also takes his film to some dark places, and fully understands the differences which keep Hilary and Stephen from fully understanding each other on a truly intimate level. Even when the romance fades though, another kind of love persists – one which is strained in its uncomfortable history, yet persistent in its sincere affection and care.
And then there is the ode to film which wraps all of this up in a setting that is both slightly superficial and entirely charming. Deakins’ atmospheric lighting can’t be separated from this raw cinematic power, but Mendes is also pointed in his references to movies of the era. Billboards advertising musical spectacles The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz ground the story in the early 1980s, right at the time when independent cinema started to give way to blockbusters, and in the very final minutes, Being There underscores a key moment in Hilary’s life. Just like Peter Sellers’ simple-minded Chance the gardener, the depths contained within this seemingly plain, dowdy woman are astonishing. Cinema in Empire of Light is designed to inspire and reframe one’s perspective of an ostensibly ordinary world, and with Deakins’ radiant photography at his disposal, Mendes unites both narrative and style under that warm, rose-tinted thesis.
Empire of Light is currently playing in theatres.