Film Reviews

Empire of Light

Published March 4, 2023
Even Margate looks romantic with fireworks...

Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes listings this week, I was amazed to see that Charlotte Wells’s debut film, Aftersun, scores a 95% approval rating from the critics, while Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light clocks in at 45%. This suggests that Wells has given us a masterpiece and Mendes has made a dud. Despite this apparent critical consensus, I defy readers to see both films and come to the same conclusions.

The outlandish praise being lavished on Aftersun seems to me incomprehensible. The Guardian has declared it Film of the Year, but I thought it felt like a student effort: a shapeless, episodic narrative; lots of handheld camera that wobbles all over the place; an obvious storyline, and clichéd ‘artistic’ touches held for far too long. It’s not merely dull, it’s frustratingly dull, as one keeps wondering when the rudiments of a plot will appear.

Aftersun tells the story of a depressed, estranged father taking his 11-year-old daughter to a holiday resort in Turkey. When they eventually go home, we realise that sad Dad is almost certainly going to commit suicide. As to why people are raving about this movie, I can only conclude they haven’t seen many arthouse films, or they feel a sense of superiority over the poor working-class schmucks who stay at these crappy resorts, eating, drinking, swimming, sitting in the sun and playing video games. The classy people apparently stay home and watch movies like Aftersun. As for the critics, one assumes they are the same crowd who thought Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman’, was a better film than Citizen Kane or Vertigo, in the recent Sight and Sound poll.

Aftersun is Wells’s eulogy to her late father, while Empire of Light (a title borrowed from René Magritte?) is Mendes’s tribute to his late mother, who suffered from mental illness. While the former has been praised for its sensitivity, the latter has been shredded for all sorts of petty quibbles about plot, script, nostalgia, even for misunderstanding the socio-economic context of the Thatcher era!

Frankly, I don’t get it. Empire of Light seems to me palpably superior in all departments. Although Mendes’s mother may be a ghostly presence in the story, the film is not simply about her, but about the cinema, and what it meant to people in those days before everyone spent their lives glued to a mobile phone.

The setting is Margate, a seaside town on the south-east coast of England. It’s the place where the secretive artist, J.M.W. Turner, shacked up with his landlady, Mrs. Booth, in the 1830s, and where the Mods and Rockers fought a series of pitched battles in 1964. Empire of Light is set in 1980-81, when Margaret Thatcher was beginning her demolition job on the welfare state, and punk rock was mutating into various forms of post-punk music.

Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is the duty manager of the Empire Cinema, an art deco movie palace that has seen better days. Although more than half of the building has fallen into disuse, the remaining theatres and foyer retain the plush trimmings of its heyday.

Hillary is conducting a crude ‘affair’, with the manager, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), which doesn’t get beyond furtive bonking in his office, and a few muttered obscenities. Apparently, Mr. Ellis’s wife doesn’t understand him. If nothing else, this sordid role should banish all lingering thoughts of Mr. Darcy, when viewers look at Colin Firth.

At work, Hilary keeps up a cheerful façade. When she goes home, it’s to a lonely flat, where she takes her pills and feels miserable about her life. She is made to think again when a young black man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the small team at the Empire. Although there is more than twenty years between them, an unlikely relationship develops. It’s because Stephen, as a black man in a community steeped in racism, feels as much an outsider as Hilary.

He introduces her to his favourite music – The Specials, with songs such as Do Nothing, which still sound fresh after more than 40 years. They go by bus to the beach and make love in the deserted rooms of the cinema. But there’s a steady tension rising. Margate is being invaded by born-again mods and skinheads, who are looking for trouble, while Hilary has stopped taking her medication and allowing herself to be used by Mr. Ellis.

On the evening when the Empire is hosting a red-carpet premiere of Chariots of Fire, Hilary’s mental disarray erupts in an embarrassingly public manner. From this point she can’t hide her problems, although Stephen and the rest of the staff rally around. She continually seeks solace in poetry, in Tennyson, Larkin, and most dramatically in a recitation of W.H. Auden’s Death’s Echo.

I won’t give away any more of the story, which is deceptively simple, but packed with poignant moments and symbolism. It’s not coincidental that the cinema is called the Empire (the real-life establishment is known as Dreamworld), or that Hilary’s breakdown occurs during Chariots of Fire – the patriotic saga of Olympic gold that put British cinema back on the map.

The entire film enacts a sombre, ironic commentary on a society that is as depressed as Hilary and as racially challenged as Stephen. The British economy is in the doldrums, riots are breaking out everywhere. It’s a portrait of a nation sliding into despair while a big budget movie celebrates the glories of the past.

Unsurprisingly, most of the movies shown at the Empire are from Hollywood – features such as Stir Crazy, The Blues Brothers, and Being There. Although Hilary spends much of her waking life at the cinema, she never watches the films. Stephen, however, is seduced – not just by the movies, but by the seedy atmosphere of the projectionist’s booth, where Norman (Toby Jones), explains the tricks of the trade.

Empire Lights is study of doomed romance – between a disturbed woman and her young lover, between the people who work at the cinema and the steady decay of its glamour. By 1980, Britain itself is hardly more than a lost romance, celebrated by the nostalgia of Chariots of Fire, and the gaudy spectacle of the new year fireworks Hilary and Stephen watch from the roof of the cinema.

It’s hard to believe Olivia Colman didn’t score a BAFTA nomination for her portrayal of Hilary. She might not have nudged out Cate Blanchett for Best Actress, but it’s laughable to put her behind Viola Davis in the African costume fantasy, The Woman King. One of these roles requires acting, the other is mere emoting.

Overall, I’m at a loss to explain the dismissive way Empire of Light has been treated. It’s a beautiful, melancholy film that works on many levels, with one woman’s personal sadness echoing the greater sadness that has enveloped an entire nation. While the cinema may not be the solution to the problem, Mendes suggests it can go a long way towards deadening the pain.

Empire of Light

Written & directed by Sam Mendes

Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke

UK/USA, MA 15+, 115 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 March, 2023