• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Review: Empire of Light

ByFrances Hadley

Feb 10, 2023
Sam Mendes

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Every now and then a film comes along so wrongheaded that it all but begs for a pithy put-down from the acid-tongued critic. Empire of Light is almost, but not quite, that film. Taking it to task for all the ways it bungles its attempts at commenting on mental health is a depressing task. It is set around a cinema in a seaside town during the Thatcher years and follows Hilary (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged white woman, and Stephen (Michael Ward), a young black man, and their alternately romantic/platonic relationship. Though the exact nature is never specified, Hilary has mental health problems (one character calls her ‘schizophrenic’ but her symptoms seems closer to bipolar) and we learn that she had recently been institutionalised.

She is having an affair with her boss (Colin Firth) which consists of occasional passionless sex in his office – as a side note, hearing Firth say the words ‘suck it, oh please suck it’ is not something anyone needs in their life. Along comes Stephen, and Hilary’s attention is caught by his easy-going charisma. While looking round the cinema, they find a wounded pigeon which Stephen promptly heals with his sock, beating you over the head with idiotic symbolism (not to mention the question of whether Stephen spends the rest of his shift half sockless – maybe he carries a spare?). Subsequently, they embark on a rather unlikely romance and although it is never exactly spelled out, we are clearly meant to be aware of the age gap between them.

Trouble is, for all that they are supposed to ‘grow’ from each other’s company, Sam Mendes essentially falls back on unhelpful tropes that problematise the relationship in unintended ways. Most egregiously is the fact that Stephen more or less exists for Hilary to learn that racism exists and is bad – for all the aspirations that the script makes him blurt out and as intelligent an actor as Ward is, in the final reckoning of the film he is reduced to a prop. By far the worst scene comes about halfway through when neo-Nazis break into the cinema and brutally assault him. It is indeed very upsetting, but for all the wrong reasons – clearly little thought has gone into it and putting it in something so self-consciously ‘quaint’ is unbelievably wrongheaded. Remember this is also a film in which Toby Jones waxes lyrical about the ‘magic of cinema’ – blegh.

Attempts to portray mental illness do not fare much better. The most embarrassing scene comes shortly before that, in which Hilary has a breakdown at a premiere and delivers the single worst monologue I’ve ever heard in any film. It’s almost worth the price of admittance to see an Oscar winning actress deliver something so awful, especially imagining Mendes writing that thinking it would be her (second) Oscars moment.

Ultimately though, Empire of Light is not worth debilitating over for the simple reason that it is utterly and inescapably boring. The screening I saw was projected in 35mm, which only served to make me even more depressed watching it, with the closure of the Filmhouse that had been the only place to do semi-regular 35mm screenings. That the format is reserved for prestige pablum like this is profoundly saddening.

Sam Mendes in 2022-2” by Frankie Fouganthin is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.