If 1917 saw Sam Mendes pay tribute to the life of his grandfather, Empire of Light exists in debt to the strife of his mother. It is her struggles with mental illness that inform the plot. As films, the two are worlds apart. This is not least owing to the latter’s status as Mendes’ first solo writing credit. In this regard, Empire of Light finds its director landing not quite as a duck to water. Yet, in a typically remarkable Olivia Colman, the film still offers worthy attention for very truthful pain. Visually, meanwhile, Mendes reputation remains untainted.
Colman’s role is that of Hilary Small, duty manager at the fictional Empire Cinema – the real Dreamland having sacrificed its name – in Margate, circa 1981. A gorgeous opening sequence follows Hilary into this Mecca of coastal period pleasure, Mendes screen blooming with every light coaxed into beam. Though seemingly content in her circle, Hilary wears all the hallmarks of suffocation by monotony. She takes lithium for her schizophrenia but this ‘marvellous stuff’ leaves her numb to the world and to the emotions of day to day life. A listless affair with her boss – Colin Firth’s rather pathetic Mr. Ellis – hardly helps. It’s not romance, it’s a daily hand job on the basis that Ellis’ wife ‘won’t even make me a cup of tea’.
The arrival of a new employee at the Empire has promise though. This is Michael Ward’s Stephen: smooth, modern and thoroughly charming. He’s a hit, particularly with wide-eyed, doleful Hilary. At unlikely speed, two become one and passing glances become lustful trysts in the disused upper rooms at the Empire. More unlikely still, however, is the relationship’s hope of survival. He’s a black Briton in Thatcher’s Britain and repeatedly blocked from university because of it. She mistakes pleasure with medical stability and opts to break from her tablets in a tragic bid to feel once again. It’s not a promising mix.
While each is individually excellent, Colman and Ward never quite coalesce emotionally as Hilary and Stephen. A lack of natural chemistry compounded by ultimately flat writing. Unnecessary and awkward sex scenes hardly help, with little to differentiate between those Colman shares with Firth and Ward respectively. Each time, Mendes shoots obliquely and without passion. An odd misstep in an otherwise artfully framed film. Certainly, Roger Deakins’ lush cinematography makes for unfailing watchability. Much of the film’s aching romanticism exists solely in Deakins’ rose tinted photography and relationship with a bygone age. It’s an eye for nostalgia very much alive across so many once thriving English coastal towns.
Though seemingly central to all that occurs in the film, the Empire’s nostalgic value feels oddly untapped throughout. Only fleetingly do any of Mendes characters wax lyrical on the power of cinema, with barely any interest shown in the films playing on either screen. When it comes, the inevitable tribute to Cinema Paradiso feels rather perfunctory and just one element in a script that frequently appears lost in its own motions. Vast swathes of the film lack direction or a sense that Mendes knows where he is going. His is a script stronger in the line than the phrasing, with characters often bogged down in cliché and by peculiar life choices. Does anybody really quote Tennyson atop the roof of their workplace while watching fireworks with a colleague they’ve only known two days?
Perhaps it is an excess of concept and cause over substance that floors the film. Mental ill health is complex a subject enough without the addition of racism as a subplot. Though each is delicately handled, neither theme feels well enough explored to warrant inclusion. It’s a worthy attempt at an important conversation but superficial in the delivery and rather too wafty to resonate.