The Movie Waffler New to VOD - EMPIRE OF LIGHT | The Movie Waffler


A troubled cinema manager finds a connection with a young usher.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Sam Mendes

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

Empire of Light poster

I recall Laura Dern recounting an anecdote from the set of Jurassic Park, where she found herself stuck in some dark space with Steven Spielberg while waiting for some technical snafu to be sorted. Goofing around, Spielberg would alternate shining a flashlight onto his face from above, exclaiming "Love story!", with lighting his face from below and shouting "Horror movie!" Spielberg has always come across as someone who lives, breathes and eats cinema, so it's no surprise that even his social icebreakers revolve around filmmaking techniques. While a talented director, Sam Mendes has never quite struck me as someone who shares Spielberg's passion for cinema. He does of course understand what Spielberg was getting at with his flashlight gag, that something as simple as the placement of a light source can drastically alter the mood of a scene, and if he doesn't, his regular cinematographer Roger Deakins most certainly does.

That's why it's so odd when Mendes and Deakins choose to light the troubled female protagonist of their latest collaboration, Empire of Light, from below, thus giving her the appearance of a horror movie villain. The scene sees Olivia Colman's mentally ill Hilary, the mousy duty manager of a cinema on the English south coast, suffer a breakdown while drinking wine in her flat. The light source is a lamp on a table, which she looms over, its rays of light crawling up her agonised face, drawing malevolence from every wrinkle and cranny. In this moment Mendes turns Hilary, a character he's spent the rest of the movie using cheaply as a vessel for audience sympathy, into a monster. It's as though he doesn't really know what to do with a character like Hilary, has never known someone like Hilary, but has gone ahead and written the character (in crayons) regardless.

Empire of Light review

The old visual cliché of a troubled female protagonist dunking her head below the waterline of a bath tub rears its ugly head early on, warning us that Mendes has no ideas of his own. He may not have ever known a woman like Hilary, but he's obviously seen movies about them. Dunking their head underwater – that's what mad women do, right?

Like some well-meaning but annoying neighbour who insists you join them for Christmas dinner, Mendes equates being an introvert with being miserable. There are countless scenes of Hilary drinking alone in her flat while listening to Joni Mitchell, which to me just seems like a thoroughly pleasant way to spend your evening. But Hilary is a woman without a man, so obviously she's miserable, right?

Hilary finds a man, or at least a boy, when Stephen (Michael Ward), who is seemingly the only black man in town, starts work as an usher at the cinema. Despite being in his late teens and very handsome, Stephen starts an unlikely affair with Hilary, shagging her in the cinema's now-abandoned upstairs auditorium (the film is set in 1980, the beginning of the cinema industry's worst ever decade in the UK) while melting her heart with his Terry Molloy act of caring for a wounded pigeon. I forgot to mention that Hilary is also shagging her boss, the cinema's owner, who is played by Colin Firth, which will likely erode much sympathy from the female contingent of the audience.

Empire of Light review

Stephen isn't a randomly black character, he's a prop for a half-baked look at racism, bullied by local skinheads, taunted by customers and eventually badly beaten. In the only glimpse we get of his home life the TV is playing a news report about a race riot. Of course it is; he couldn't just be watching Only Fools and Horses now could he?

Through Hilary and Stephen's relationship we get two awful tropes – the white saviour and the magic negro, with each serving to rescue the other. It's a marriage of convenience. Mendes needs these characters to come together, but he never sells it as a genuine relationship; it's just two characters making trite points in between heavy petting sessions. The message is that it doesn't matter if you're black or white, and you should be nice to people. If this is all Mendes has to say he could have just made a Hallmark Christmas movie, rather than dragging us out to the cinema in this cold weather.

Empire of Light review

Speaking of the cinema, I'm not entirely sure why the film is set against the backdrop of a picture palace. It could have been set in a sausage factory or a car plant and little would have changed. Of course, there's a schmaltzy "power of cinema" moment where Hilary watches Hal Ashby's Being There. Unable to evoke any emotion through his own filmmaking, Mendes resorts to borrowing the work of a real master. Similarly, when he needs Hilary to make a point he has her recite some classic poetry rather than rely on his own words or, Heaven forbid, images.

It's similarly unclear why the film is set in 1980, but my guess is it's because the skinheads serve as a convenient representation of racism, one the film's target middle class audience can frown upon without feeling any guilt themselves. Like so many white filmmakers, Mendes' simplistic idea of a racist is an uneducated working class thug in bovver boots. While Stephen is harassed by the town's lower class oiks, he's treated with affection and respect by the film's well-educated, sensitive middle class characters like Hilary and the cinema's projectionist (Toby Jones), who takes him under his wing. Pass me an empty popcorn bucket.

Empire of Light
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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