Empire of Light

(written and directed by Sam Mendes).


A very reliable rule in most film-making is that an excellent script can still be turned into a bad film, but a poor script will never be turned into a good film.  A problem can come, therefore, when a renowned director decides he or she will also be the writer.  At that point, in certain cases, it is necessary for a no-nonsense producer to have an honest word and say, “Sorry, dear renowned colleague, but you need a bit of help.  Your writing isn’t good enough.”  None of which happened here.

At a fairly early point in Empire of Light there is a scene in which the two main protagonists, assistant cinema manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) and new recruit Stephen (Micheal Ward) venture into the abandoned top floor of the fading Empire Cinema building.  There they find a wounded pigeon.  Stephen confirms that it has a broken wing and knows what to do.  He takes off a shoe, removes his sock, cuts a hole in the sock and by this means makes a cosy, restrictive coat for the pigeon in which the wing will have a chance to heal.  A week later they revisit the bird and launch it back into the air.  Oh, the symbolism!

But how did Stephen cut a hole in the sock?  Well, in the foreground of the shot (and you might not notice it) is an open first aid kit from which he has evidently procured a pair of scissors.  Really? We have not seen either character look for scissors, or a first aid kit, or indeed anything to resolve the situation with the pigeon, and yet there it is, still in a dusty space which has not been used in years.  How very handy.  Sorry, but the contrived nature of this scene is emblematic of the whole film – a film which creaks under the weight of its own seriousness.

Director Sam Mendes has for the first time taken on the role of sole script-writer.  He addresses two principal themes: mental illness and racism (Stephen is black), and grafts them on to the formula so beloved by film awards voters – the love letter to the old way of watching movies.  It is a classic example of deciding on your overriding themes and concocting characters to illustrate them, and the result is a film which never (unlike the pigeon) takes wing.

We are at a seaside town in Southern England at the start of the 1980’s.  The art deco edifice of the Empire has seen better days, and its staff appears to be equally faded and drab.  Audiences are dwindling.  Hilary, we slowly learn, has been diagnosed as schizophrenic.  She engages in brief and unsatisfying sexual interludes with her manager (Colin Firth) but is also pretty handy at quoting English poetry.  Stephen suffers from both casual and overt racism, culminating in an awful beating from local skinheads.  Other characters are nicely drawn, particularly by Toby Jones as the projectionist (he reveals his own sad, but largely unnecessary, back-story in the final reel) and Tom Brooke as Neil.  But the film continually drags, the big moments feel signposted and contrived, and there are a couple of false endings.

The production design and Roger Deakins’ photography are both excellent and Olivia Colman is superb.  That, I am afraid, is where the compliments end.  It is not a satisfying watch.

As a footnote, two other recently released films by writer-directors illustrate how to write a convincing script and fashion a truly engaging piece of cinema: don’t start with issues, start with characters.  Start with strong characters, stick with them, allow them to grow, and let it be their story arcs which allow consideration of deeper themes.  I’m talking about Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (characters drawn directly from his imagination) and James Grey’s Armageddon Time (a reflection on his childhood).  In each case we are invested in the characters because they seem real and three-dimensional: they are not ciphers.  Nothing is stated too overtly – there is no preachiness – yet in each film we are both fully engaged by the detail and allowed to think, and reflect, on a larger scale.

Graham Buchan © 2023.