Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is essentially a passionate love letter to the cinema, the kind of film that could have created with me – or somebody very like me – in mind
It’s 1981 and, somewhere on the south coast of England, the Empire cinema, a magnificent but now somewhat dilapidated Art Deco picture house, proudly announces its current offerings: The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz. Filmed on location in Margate, the atmosphere of the era is convincingly evoked, right down to the last detail. Here is the age of Thatcherism, a time when fascism, in the form of skin head culture, was in the ascendent. But, within the sheltering walls of the Empire, deputy manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) and her team of social misfits seem inured to change, even though two of their four screens are now permanently closed.
Hilary is occasionally expected to find time to pop up to the office of sleazy manager, Mr Ellis (Colin Firth) – for a joyless sexual fumble on his desk. Ellis is married and it’s supposed to be a secret but – of course – the others are well aware of what’s going on. A change is signalled by the arrival of new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), a handsome young Black man with a liking for Two Tone music. When Hilary shows Stephen around the derelict, pigeon-infested ballroom on the top floor, something clicks between them…
At a time when streaming is increasingly becoming the norm, it seems doubly poignant when projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) explains how moving pictures employ a simple trick to deceive the viewer’s eyes into thinking they are watching something more than a long series of still photographs. We occasionally see him in his booth, the walls plastered with images of movie stars from across the eras, meticulously directing images from his 35 mm reels onto a giant screen. The moment is mesmerising and it’s a timely reminder that cinema itself is in danger of suffering the fate of the dinosaurs.
Beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and written by Mendes, Empire of Light is compelling, and at times overpoweringly poignant. I almost get tired of praising Olivia Colman, but – from Tyrannosaur onwards – she has offered up a series of extraordinary screen performances and Hilary may be her best character yet. She’s complex and unpredictable, vacillating from joyful enthusiasm to vengeful anger. You believe in her implicitly and, furthermore, I’ve rarely seen mental illness presented with such skill, such gentle acceptance. Much of this is due to Mendes’ nuanced script, and the fact that the director’s own mother struggled with her mental health may have instructed his writing. Stephen too is a compelling character, somehow managing to operate through the hateful levels of racism he experiences on a daily basis, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on a brighter future.
This charming and affecting movie has me entranced from its opening shot to its final frame and I suspect that anybody with a genuine love of film is going to have a similar experience. Go and see it – in the cinema, please!