Empire of Light: a disappointing off-season excursion

Though its cinematography and set design are undeniably evocative, Sam Mendes’ latest film is content to coast along the surface of its themes without plumbing their depths.

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman as Stephen and Hilary in Empire of Light (2022)

Sam Mendes’ new film has three terrific strengths. The first is a dream of a location: Margate’s refurbished Dreamland cinema has been made under into the Empire, a scruffy, faded picture palace on the south coast in the very early 1980s. Beyond the art-deco foyer is a gilded auditorium and a tatty booth papered with film star photographs, where Toby Jones’ proud projectionist guards his canisters and carbons; outside the glass doors, the bleak horizon of the grey-blue sea. It’s a pleasure, if a slightly seedy one, to spend time in this place. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, another strength of the film, picks out every crumb of popcorn lurking in the tatty carpets, and bounces light around the rust and burgundy décor to create an atmosphere that is warm but tangibly grubby. Upstairs, there is almost as much space again: a ballroom, and two more screens, now dilapidated, dusty and closed to the public.

The film’s third ace card is Olivia Colman as duty manager Hilary, who potters about the Empire counting ticket stubs. She is as rundown as the cinema: taking daily lithium tablets after a serious breakdown the previous summer and embroiled in a joyless affair of sorts with the manager, played by Colin Firth as a tedious lecher. Hilary starts each shift by warming his slippers in front of the electric heater and ends it by popping into his office for an unsatisfactory, barely consensual shag.

Colman is, as always, mesmerising. The role requires her to carry off extreme mood swings: impassioned off-medication rants about the wrongs of men, a wine glass clenched in her fist, coexist with charming, light-touch romcom manoeuvres. Extended close-ups capture her both at her most psychically vulnerable, her face drained of life, and at her radiant peaks, when Mendes offers her some fairly condescending redemption under a beam of dusty light.

Those peaks come largely in the wake of a handsome young man, Stephen (played very quietly by Micheal Ward), joining the staff of the Empire; he rapidly clicks with Hilary, who pounces on him for a New Year’s midnight kiss. The feeling’s mutual, but he doesn’t just bring good humour and sexual passion into Hilary’s life: he provides the first of the film’s clunking great metaphors, as he rescues a pigeon with a broken wing and nurses it back to flight. Meanwhile, Stephen has a broken heart and a career false start to contend with, as well as daily threats of racist violence from the local skinheads. Hilary and Stephen both, at different times, reach a crisis point in the Empire’s foyer: she battles her demons in public, while he takes on a local chapter of the National Front. Neither comes out of their confrontations well, but this film’s divided focus cannot sit with either storyline long enough to see it through. The racism in Thatcher’s Britain, like Hilary’s mental illness, is too serious a problem to be resolved by a film that is more interested in nostalgically capturing the texture of the recent past than exploring deeper matters.

Ultimately, the film fails its two leads, burdening them with leaden dialogue and unresolved arcs. Curiously, it doesn’t work either as a tribute to the transportive joys of cinema – a theme ushered in by Jones’ crisp monologue on the persistence of vision and Stephen’s delight in learning to master the reel change under the older man’s tutelage. As is expected of a cinema-set film, the marquee groans with beloved classics, and yet for most of the duration, movies are simply a way to pass the time. The posters in the foyer are more meticulous set-dressing, like the retro fizzy-pop cans and the sweets on the concession counter. A sequence involving a gala screening of Chariots of Fire drops Vangelis’s stirring theme tune right into one of Hilary’s most harrowing moments, turning tragedy abruptly into farce. And it’s characteristic of the film’s elisions that the potential of the glorious upstairs space remains untapped.

Empire of Light succeeds remarkably at evoking a time and place, the austerity of the early 80s and the blank skies and dirty concrete of a seaside town hibernating through the winter months. But with its clunky screenplay, its thematic glibness and its many missed opportunities, Mendes’ latest creation feels rather off-season.

► Empire of Light was one of the Headline Gala films at the 2022 London Film Festival; it was screening on 12 and 13 October.