Twenty three years after American Beauty, Sam Mendes returns to the LFF with a film rhyming some of the themes of his debut – lives either stuck between two states or else going nowhere, social imprisonment, brutal intolerance, unlikely outsiders finding one another and release through cinephilia. Stylistically, though, Empire of Light, Mendes’ ninth film, is a world away from the glossy suburban United States of his Oscar-winning classic, with its picket fences and perfect teeth. Instead we’re in 1980s Margate; nicotine stains, council estates and half-drunk glasses of lucozade on the bedside tables of the sick, where a box of Malteasers cost 20p and far right yobbos stalk the streets hurling blunt racist abuse … and though the price of Malteasers has gone up considerably, this last means this world is not quite as unrecognisable as perhaps we’d like.
In a long and quite extraordinary career, Mendes has rarely tackled what you might call “domestic Britain”. His Bond films certainly don’t count. Empire of Light is a different sort of story though – in his introduction at the premiere the director told the sell-out Royal Festival Hall that this was one of the most personal things he has put his name to. He was also very clear about what the film isn’t – it’s been called a “love letter to cinema”, and Mendes argues that this misses the point. He’s absolutely right. It’s not really that. Cinema is a theme, certainly. Most of the action takes place inside one, for a start. But it’s not the soul of the film. For the characters it’s a distraction, occasionally an escape or an ideal to aim for, but it’s always on the periphery. In fact, the scenes in which Toby Jones’ grumpy projectionist lovingly caresses his machinary as he threads the film through, and the occasional nods to the blissful wonder of the silver screen actually feel rather tagged on.
No. This is a film about mental illness; a tribute to Mendes’ own mother, the author Valerie Mendes, a single parent who struggled with poor mental health. In his introduction the director dedicated the film to the woman who managed to raise him while sometimes “completely falling apart”. He channels much of the isolation he saw in her into his screenplay and especially into his lead character.
Olivia Colman plays Hilary, a duty manager at a two-screen seafront cinema in Margate, in 1981. Life is dull. She doesn’t watch the films. She doesn’t eat the popcorn. She’s having a joyless affair with Colin Firth’s cinema manager (let’s try not to think about the fact she played Elizabeth II and he once played her father, George VI). She lives alone. The staff at the theatre form a kind of family, but not an especially close one. The country is in recession. It’s Christmas, and the beach is bleak and cold. Hilary, we soon learn, is being prescribed lithium, a powerful stabiliser often used to treat bipolar, schizophrenia, depression and other mood disorders. It’s making her feel “out of sorts”.
Into this comes Stephen, a young Black man, a cinephile, music fan and absolutely ray of sunshine, played with a palpable effervescence by Micheal Ward in his first really big role. Stephen is one of those characters that passes through the world changing it as he goes, bringing hope to the dilapidated old theatre and its staff, and beginning an unlikely affair with Coleman’s Hilary. While the trope of the super-charismatic, attractive character who proves transformative to everyone else’s drab lives is pretty well worn, it’s rare for the focus to be a young, Black man and the subject of his affection a middle-aged white woman. It’s something we haven’t seen often, which is to the film’s credit; though if genders were switched the tone would admittedly be very different. Stephen draws a sunnier spontaneity out of Colman’s character, to the point that she decides she no longer needs to take her meds. Which is where things start to go wrong.
Colman is, obviously, excellent in the role. Olivia Colman eats this kind of gig for breakfast, and she’s as good here as she’s ever been in anything. So good, in fact, that it’s easy to take her for granted. There’s a lot of nuance here, and she taps into Hilary’s isolation, anger, humour and – when necessary – her illness with the same absolute naturalism. It’s a performance easily good enough to earn her a second Oscar, should the cards fall the right way.
The film itself is harder to call. Certainly there’s a lot going for it – Mendes’ decision to bring in Roger Deakins as director of photography, owner of cinema’s greatest living filmic eye, is a masterstroke. He makes bleak, ’80s Margate consistently beautiful when it could have been rather kitchen-sink. It constantly elevates the whole thing. Colman and Ward are wonderful, as are Jones and Firth in smaller roles, and the handling of the core subjects – isolation, mental health, yearning for escape – are built-in beautifully. There are secondary themes here that are less well integrated, however. A subplot about racist abuse feels far too incidental for such an important topic, and as we’ve said the “love letter to cinema” stuff always feels a bit cursory. It’s a topic that American Beauty handled much better.
Mendes, scripting solo for the first time, has delivered a film that is personal, occasionally brutal, often very funny and always beautiful to look at. When it works, it flys. It’s not quite a classic, though it had the potential to be, missing its mark a few too many times. It’s a hard heart, however, that won’t be moved at one point or another.