With Sam Mendes following up his award-winning war epic 1917 with what has been much-trailed as ‘a love letter to cinema’, you might not expect the primary criticism of Empire of Light to be that it is simply too busy with ideas and strange, surprising asides to really hit home emotionally. And yet that is the precise problem with this sorta-autobiographical drama about two lives revolving around a grand old Margate cinema and the ways in which these lives, for better and worse, keep intersecting. Tackling movies, race relations, mental health, and an age-gap relationship, Mendes (who, for the first time on one of his films, is the sole credited writer) can’t often find a satisfying way in to an otherwise beautifully designed world.
Empire of Light takes us back to 1981, where the lonely Hilary (Olivia Colman) has recently returned to work as duty manager at the Empire Cinema (where most of the film’s action takes place) after spending a few weeks sectioned. Though she’s mostly pretty functional, Hilary is prone to wild mood swings and manic episodes, though they seem to calm down after she meets the new Empire employee, the young and charming Stephen (Micheal Ward), with whom she starts a somewhat illicit relationship.
Though she has been carrying on a torrid, loveless affair with cinema manager Mr Ellis (Colin Firth in pure sleazebag mode), Stephen actually seems to *see* Hilary. There’s a powerful core dynamic here of a theoretically mismatched couple united by the crass and cruel eyes of society – Hilary’s middle-age makes her invisible, while Stephen stands out all too clearly as a young Black man in Thatcher-era Margate, with the National Front in ascendancy and skinheads increasing in number in the streets. Yet, it’s never given the space to grow, Mendes seemingly unable to decide what exactly is going to take prominence.
By ducking between the Big Issues of mental health and racism, he doesn’t do justice to either, and a racist riot – though the central set-piece of the film – ends up feeling bleakly underpowered. Across the story, Empire of Light switches perspectives between Hilary and Stephen pretty regularly, but for some reason we see the skinhead attack on Stephen through Hilary’s eyes and what should be a gasping horror instead becomes a sort of teachable moment for a white person caught up in it, a deeply uncomfortable and alienating way to handle it.
It doesn’t help that Colman’s performance here is far from her finest hour. She shares a decent chemistry with Ward – who you really end up feeling should have been the sole lead – but is generally doing far too much, especially in Hilary’s breakdown scenes. There’s a screaming lack of subtlety to everything she does which feels like a performance that really got away from Mendes, at odds with Ward’s easy charisma and the subtle scene-stealing of Toby Jones as the Empire’s projectionist and Tom Brooke as ticket seller Neil.
It’s a shame to have these sorts of fundamental flaws because, outside of the iffy script and overwrought central performance, Empire of Light is often an immaculately made film. Obviously, Roger Deakins’s cinematography is the true star of the show here; through his lens, Margate looks incredible, bathed in wintry sunlight with beautiful and perfectly spaced pops of colour. His compositions are at once colossal and intimate, everything you’d want out of the work of probably the best single cinematographer working today – if anyone could be granted the title of Emperor of Light, it’d be him. The production design is just as good, with the Empire a genuine marvel of a set, from the rich and warm main screen to the abandoned upper floors that seem to carry on into a whole new world.
Also impressive is yet another great score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, while the costuming and make-up design is next-to-faultless, characters’ designs saying more about them than their words ever do. It’s a proper thrill to see this visual work done just so *well* by all departments concerned, and it makes Empire of Light absolutely worth catching on the biggest screen you can find – if only it provided a story worthy of its style.