dir: Sam Mendes
Empire of Light is a curious thing. It’s a film that has an almost reverential love for old cinemas, but not that much interest in being cinematic, or really that interested in movies. Of the films of the era that are depicted or referred to, Chariots of Fire gets a lot of mentions, but not much else in terms of screen time.
And there are a few scenes from Sidney Poitier’s Stir Crazy, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and there’s a bit about Being There towards the end of the film, but it’s not about film itself as a medium, or what it can mean to us.
Because it’s not really about the transformative power of the movies. It’s about racism, and a character who struggles with mental illness, and what it was like in the early 1980s in Britain, maybe?
Olivia Colman is the biggest name in this flick, except maybe for Colin Firth, who has a small but odious role, but, really, only about half the flick is about her character. At first I thought we were just going to be watching a film about a depressed woman called Hillary who works at a cinema but never watches the movies playing, who is having something of a desultory affair with her boss (Firth), leading to highly unsatisfying sex in his office.
But then a new chap starts called Stephen (Michael Ward), and he’s young and beautiful, and Hillary is happy again.
For a while.
The old cinema, called The Empire, is already old and in parts run down, even 40 years ago. Its prime, like that of Great Britain, is long gone. Parts of the cinema are shutdown or unusable, and there’s a rooftop bar that goes unused except by pigeons.
There is an inscription on the wall telling people “Find where light in darkness lies” at this old art deco cinema, and I wish that’s as pretentious as the flick got, but it’s bookended with and divided by poetry, so…
The first references TS Eliot’s The Wasteland which is about nothing more except that April is indeed the cruellest of months, and where everything’s dead. The mid section has her reading aloud a WH Auden poem telling an audience to “dance dance until you drop” during a manic phase, but ends with Trees from Philip Larkin: Yes, there’s death, but there is hope that new life springs forth.
Heartening stuff. Hillary goes through the motions of her every day, and it seems like a lot of effort to maintain. Her doc dully documents how she’s going with her lithium. She ballroom dances. She drinks. She works but doesn’t watch movies. She is only recently out of what we assume is a psych unit. The theatre happily keeps employing her, but we sense there was some…unpleasantness there previous.
Having to shag Colin Firth certainly isn’t one of the perks of the job. I mean, Colin Firth of thirty, even twenty years ago would have maybe been all right. But this jerk right now? Very selfish lover. Very inattentive.
And really, he’s exploiting her, and she’s not happy about it.
One fateful New Years, when she makes a move on Stephen, when they’ve just been hanging out, and he (later on, after a racist attack) seems far more receptive, Hillary gets joyful, and doesn’t even need the lithium anymore, and happily lies about it to her doctor.
I wonder if things are going to go bad again, or will she stay happy again forever?
We have more of a sense of what energies course through Hillary than we ever do with Stephen. Stephen is, apart from being, I dunno, 30 years her junior, a young Black British guy living in Britain at a time where the Tories are in power, Thatcher rules with an iron fist, and the fascists like random skinhead gangs or the British National Front fuckers are attacking (Black) people in the streets.
Who knows why they feel so emboldened? Stephen and a goth / punk girl at work initially hang out, since they’re roughly around the same age and like hearing live music out and about. It’s the era of Two-tone, of that hopeful movement that sought to bring “white” and “black” together in a spirit of solidarity with their shared love of sped up reggae music smushed together with punk, ska and whatever else was lying around.
You know, The Specials, The Beat, The Selector? Um, that’s about it as far as my musical knowledge goes, though I do remember with sadness that the lead singer of the Specials, being Terry Hall, died late last year, may he rest in peace and rhythm.
To be honest, though, the music doesn’t play a big part in it, just like movies don’t play a big part. Stephen mostly just exists for Hillary to try to feel alive with by having sex with him, to feel bad about not being able to protect him from violent racism, and to listen to characters talk. He’s kind of a stand in for the audience, in a way, but that just means he’s just there to let people pontificate, explicate, declaim, exposit etc.
Probably of the best non-Hillary scenes, the crusty and oblivious projectionist (the often great Toby Jones) explains the technical “magic” of how the whole projection thing works to a person that, by that stage, should already have known a bit, of just how complicated it is for it to work, and the flaw in our visual perception that allows for cinema to even work for us.
And the strings swell…So we know it’s important. I think I enjoyed the latter scene where Stephen helps switch the reels while Stir Crazy is playing more, but it’s nice that he has one uncomplicated relationship in the flick.
There are parts of this that are a harrowing watch. The flick doesn’t shy entirely away from the more extreme moments for Hillary when, after things not going her way for a while, and a few days without sleep, and a fair bit of booze in her system, she is ranting and screaming so much that the cops come to escort her to one of those places where you have to stay against your will for a while.
But there’s also the (to me) shocking explosion of rage where, after she and Stephen have been building sand castles for a while on the beach right near where the theatre is, he asks her about past relationships (innocently, I feel, not like in a paranoid, jealous, controlling way), she gets so fucking angry talking about the array of men who have used her over the years, including her vile manager, doctors and professors at uni, and destroys everything as she rages.
A long list of grievances, and she hopes to still get revenge on them one day. Fingers crossed.
It’s also telling that, prior to her being escorted out of her own flat by the local constabulary, she’s ranting and raving about how much her mother resented her and was jealous of her – stuff from 40 years ago. Stuff from her childhood, that she can never let go of.
This is – I’m trying to be delicate here – not just stereotypical depictions of nuts behaviour onscreen. Sam Mendes, as well as directing, wrote this script, and directs Olivia Colman in order to try and capture what it was like for his own mother, in that era, as he remembers it.
And based on this depiction, I don’t think he wants to malign his mother, or demonise her, but neither does he want to sugarcoat what it was like during her worst periods. You may question what his motivations are in doing so, but I don’t get the feeling that it’s revenge.
Still, if Hillary is Mendes’ mum, then who is Sam Mendes in all this?
Surely it’s not Stephen because…
Well, first of all, other than the romantic relationship between them, Mendes isn’t of Jamaican / Caribbean extraction as best I can tell. I don’t think his mum is of the Windrush generation, or a child thereof. Whereas Stephen clearly is, with his mother Delia (Tanya Moodie) who works as a nurse at the hospital he’s soon going to be in for several weeks, being clearly of that generation.
The vicious racism in the flick is fleeting. Scenes of it are few and far between. It’s not the insidious racism of speeches and government programs trying to make certain people’s lives miserable: it’s the in-the-wild version, the free-floating virus that infects groups of men with more than two in number, emboldened by Thatcher to mercilessly attack people just like Stephen in the street or even at his place of work.
What does the film say about racism, either now or in the 1980s? Not much, really. The perpetrators are fucking morons, but they don’t exist as characters – they have no more presence than a pack of wild dogs or a horde of zombies. They come, they gleefully attack, they scamper away.
Racism is bad. That’s about as much as the flick can manage.
Stephen was never going to be at the decrepit cinema for that long – this was always only a temporary stop, thankfully, either to the grave (at the hands and jackboots of skinheads) or to university, where he’d been planning on studying architecture. While he may have some tenderness towards Hillary, and she towards him, I can’t say that I really understood their relationship…
I mean, we had one person in desperate need, like a wounded pigeon one might even say, and the other…? What was Stephen’s reason for wanting to be with Hillary, other than that she wanted him? Maybe sometimes it’s enough to be wanted, but I’m not sure what it meant for him. It’s left for his mother to explain a bit, but even then.
Empire of Light manages to be both deeply personal and somewhat distancing in how it tells its story, because beyond the quality of the performances and the incredible work bringing that cinematic palace to life, it doesn’t really say that much about life or cinema or England, other than that watching films can be enjoyable and racist attacks suck.
And I kinda already knew that, though it helps to have Olivia Colman remind me.
6 times I will miss cinemas terribly when they are gone out of 10
“There's a little flaw in our optic nerve so if I run the film at 24 frames per second, you don't see the darkness... viewing static images rapidly in succession creates an illusion of motion, illusion of life.” - Empire of Light