Mendes passion project is strangely free of passion in a film that misses the targets it aims for
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Olivia Colman (Hilary Small), Micheal Ward (Stephen Murray), Tom Brooke (Neil), Toby Jones (Norman), Colin Firth (Donald Ellis), Tanya Moodie (Delia), Hannah Onslow (Janine), Crystal Clarke (Ruby), Monica Dolan (Rosemary Bates), Sara Stewart (Brenda Ellis)
In 1981, Hilary Small (Oliva Colman) is the duty manager of grand, old-fashioned, Margate sea-front cinema The Empire. A quiet, lonely spinster who’s never seen any of the cinema’s movies, she carefully performs her duties at work which include servicing the sexual needs of owner Mr Ellis (Colin Firth). However, her life changes when young Black man Stephen Murray (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher. The two strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship – but runs into conflict as Stephen struggles with growing racism and Hilary suffers a relapse into schizophrenia.
Empire of Light has been described as personal passion project by Sam Mendes. Bizarrely it feels like a film which all passion has been strained out of. It’s a functional and safe film, scripted with little inspiration and given life largely by the charisma of its two leads.
Empire of Light partially frames itself as a love-letter to cinema-going and film. Strangely it hardly engages with either of these. In fact, it could (with minor script changes) be set just as easily in a department store, petrol station or bingo hall. This is a film where no-one talks about cinema, watches a film or even seems interested. Toby Jones’ projectionist explains the mechanics of his trade in what feels like a carefully scripted explanation of the workings of a machine the writer knows nothing about. For all the beauty of Roger Deakins’ photography, there is no moment of magic that you might expect from a director who claims to be enamoured with the medium.
Hilary finally decides to watch a film for the first time: “pick any one you like” she tells Jones. He tees up Being There – a film I’m wondering if Mendes has seen. For starters, would I show a film about mental health featuring a racist cartoon in the middle to a woman struggling with her own mental health who has just watched a close friend being beaten up by the National Front? You’re left feeling Norman simply teed up whatever film was in the machine. But then, as he says, he doesn’t really watch the films anyway. Afterwards Hilary and Stephen chat about Peter Sellers – but never once mention he has only just died.
Empire of Light fails at most other things it attempts to do. Its heart is in the coming-of-age, second-chance-at-life romance at its centre. There is fine chemistry between Colman and Ward, and their bashful coming together works as a meeting of two spiritually similar people who feel life is passing them by. Their unspoken courtship early on – rescuing a wounded pigeon together in the abandoned upper-storey of the Empire or watching the New Years fireworks on the roof – has a pleasant innocence. But fundamentally, these characters feel ill-defined and go through personal crises that feel pat and under-developed.
Colman gives her all as Hilary – although this sort of dumpy, frumpy, tragic, timid woman is becoming a little too much of a calling card – but this is a thin character. We slowly realise Hilary is a woman struggling with mental health – making her sexual exploitation by Firth’s smug, sleazy, manager even more unpleasant. She carefully goes about her work, stares down at the ground and wouldn’t even dream of intruding on the cinema-goer by actually watching the film. Colman masters the little touches of glee she gets at the presence of Stephen, Hilary’s simultaneous enjoyment and bashfulness about what she assumes is a hopeless crush.
Where the film fails though is in finding any depth in Hilary’s struggles with schizophrenia. Colman’s character is inspired, in many ways, by Mendes’ own mother. The film aims for a sympathetic presentation of mental health, which it manages but without providing any insight. While many aspects of mental health were not discussed at the time, a film made today really should have more to say than Empire of Light musters. Instead, Hilary’s condition feels like a dramatic shorthand. For a passion project that’s not good enough – the film even falls back on the age-old “stops taking her meds” plotline. For all the gusto and commitment Colman brings to Hilary’s mental collapse – a furious destruction of a sandcastle, or ranting, drunk, in an apartment where the walls are strewn with self-penned graffiti – it never feels insightful enough.
It’s sadly the same with Micheal Ward’s Stephen. For all Ward is hugely charming as this saintly young man – and for all he expertly suggests Stephen’s anger at the growing tide of racism in Britain – the issues he deals with feel like window-dressing. The most interesting moment is his confrontation with an angry, racist customer who is appeased by Hilary rather than challenged – much to Stephen’s justified fury. But name-checking Brixton and New Cross and saying “it’s getting worse” doesn’t really feel like getting to grips with the dilemmas he, and young men like him, were facing. Particularly when Stephen responds to a deadly beating with something approaching a shrug of the shoulders. You can’t argue with Mendes’ genuine feelings, but there is never enough depth.
Instead, these major social issues are benched by the film’s end, making them feel like discussion points to make Hilary feel better about her life and for Stephen to resolve to move on with his. It has less to say about these issues than an episode of Call the Midwife. Just as it has nothing to say about the magic of cinema going, turning it into a retro back-drop of posters and old sweeties. Far from making a case for cinema, it makes the building as irrelevant as some worry it is becoming today.