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3 January 2023

Empire of Light is a clumsy love letter to cinema

Set in a fictional picture house in Margate, Sam Mendes’s drama is an ode to great film. It’s just a shame it isn’t one.

By David Sexton

Lockdown made us all introspective, looking back on our lives from a time of enforced stasis. Kenneth Branagh’s childhood memoir movie, Belfast, was one such exercise. Sam Mendes’s new film, Empire of Light, the first he has scripted himself as well as directed, is another.

It’s a movie almost entirely borne out of the pandemic, says Mendes. During lockdown he confronted memories of a mother whose mental breakdowns turned him into a premature carer. “I had to deal with the swing from the vivacious, extremely hyper, extremely articulate person to the sedate, almost wordless, low-self-esteem, slightly overweight person she was when medicated,” he told the New Yorker.

It’s 1980, turning to 1981. Hilary (Olivia Colman), middle-aged and solitary, works as the duty manager at a splendid, decayed art deco cinema near the seafront in Margate (filmed at the town’s Dreamland building). After recent hospitalisation, she’s on lithium, which numbs her at least. She glumly acquiesces in giving the cinema’s nasty manager (Colin Firth) grubby handjobs in his office, but finds some company in her oddball colleagues, almost a little theatrical troupe.

Then a new boy arrives. Stephen (Micheal Ward, Top Boy, Small Axe: Lovers Rock, former Face of JD Sports) is a stunningly handsome, incredibly nice 19-year-old, hoping to study architecture. Stephen and Hilary, both outsiders, bond. Soon they’re having it off in disused corners of the picture house.

But Hilary, in her happiness, discards her meds and mania returns. She rants alarmingly against men – “you’ve got your hands around our fucking neck!” – on a nice day out at the beach with Stephen, stops turning up to work and disrupts the cinema’s biggest ever premiere (Chariots of Fire). She has to be sectioned and the romance is off. But Hilary and Stephen still help each other. She encourages him to fulfil his potential despite the brutal racism he faces, while he persuades her to find joy in actually watching films for the first time (starting with Being There), assisted by the characterful, devoted projectionist Norman (Toby Jones), who helps explain the magic. “That little beam of light is escape,” Stephen tells her, importantly.

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Empire of Light was shot by the great Roger Deakins in widescreen. He makes remarkable use of Margate’s fabled light outside the cinema and treasures the archetypal spaces of the picture house, favouring middle-distances rather than close-up. The framing does little to allow us into the central relationship. Which is just as well, perhaps, given how unconvincing it remains, not because of the acting but because it is so undeveloped, so context-free, so underwritten.

Mendes has introduced three almost entirely unrelated themes without coherently weaving them together: the experience of growing up around mental illness, reawakened by the confinement of lockdown; nostalgia for classic picture houses and cinema-going, which seems less likely to return than ever after Covid; and Black Lives Matter, less personal to him, and earnestly or opportunistically introduced.

The way to celebrate cinema is to make a good film, not to lecture about it in a bad one. Norman’s explanation of how a little flaw in our optic nerve gives us an illusion of life from static frames is not the only tiresome piety. Throughout, Mendes tries to assure us of the film’s cultural significance by using quotation, a device he used shamelessly in Skyfall (Tennyson’s “Ulysses”). The cinema itself improbably bears the legend “Light in darkness lies” (from Love’s Labour’s Lost). Hilary recites Tennyson (“Ring out, wild bells”) on the roof of the cinema on New Year’s Eve, WH Auden (“Death’s Echo”) in her premiere outburst, and finally Philip Larkin’s testament to new growth (“The Trees”) in voiceover in Stephen’s mind as he begins a new life.

While Hilary and Stephen explore a huge derelict space above the cinema together, Stephen picks up a pigeon with a broken wing, suggestively observing that “he needs a bit of help”. Taking off a sock, he fashions it into a full-body bandage for the poor thing, and persuades Hilary to hold it, although she says she doesn’t like birds. The bird loves her though. In a later scene, their “little friend” proves to be fully restored and flies up into the sky, gloriously liberated (an excitement swiftly followed by their first knee-trembler). The pigeon may be a symbol of kindness, tolerance, empathy, compassion and fellow feeling, all good things. But a veterinary impossibility I think – and not the only mishap in this pandemic plonker.

“Empire of Light” is in cinemas from 13 January

[See also: White Noise: a weird and wonderful spectacle]

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege