Monday, 6 March 2023

Empire of Light (2022)

Here's another delightful and powerful performance from Olivia Colman in another cracking Sam Mendes creation. This one's a slow, observational drama set in a cinema in an English coastal town in the early 1980's.

Hilary is working as a Deputy Manager, of sorts, under the eye of the Manager played by Colin Firth. He's not in it much, but when he is, he plays reliably, as his character, Donald Ellis, takes advantage of Hilary and her position. She has recovered from some mental health problems in her past and is being supported in this job.

We join the story on the first day of a new employee's shift as Stephen, played by Micheal Ward, nervously tries to find his feet in amongst a handful of new colleagues. We spend time with the team in thier staff room, getting ready for the cinema-goers, cleaning up at the end of their shift, sorting out the popcorn and dealing with the box office leading to the performances.

The projectionist amongst them is played by Toby Jones and he's perfect for the role. Married to his craft, film, cinema - with a feel created by Mendes much like Cinema Paradiso. The love of film and cinema, which is reflected in one scene towards the end when Stephen is shown the projection room. But unlike Cinema Paradiso, the love letter to film is not the central story. We head off into that, following the unlikely blossoming relationship between Hilary and the significantly younger Stephen.

We spend time with them as they explore their pasts, their lives, their hopes and dreams. We travel with them on days out, wandering around the town, exploring the closed-down parts of the cinema they work in, significantly spending time caring for a pigeon with a broken wing between them as they close in towards more intimate activities. Hilary is a delicate soul though and when something goes not quite to plan for her, she sinks into despair and back towards mental health issues.

The resulting events I won't spoil for you, but things do go downhill rather with some behaviours on display which Hilary lives to regret. We get a look at how the police and social services of the time dealt with someone who was in need but not coping with life outside of services. An era when the emphasis in the UK was on community care, closing down psychiatric hospitals and other facilities and supporting people to live ordinary lives in ordinary settings. Often going wrong.

Simultaneously, we get a peek at the social disorder of the time surrounding the 'Mods' movement, resurging from the 1960's, focusing on seaside towns, and the difficult position the whole team at the cinema found themselves in when the mob broke into the cinema, racially targeting Stephen. So yes, there are lots of social issues weaved in and out of the film, racism of the day, mental health issues pertaining to the era, the abusive behaviour of those in power over others and more.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, felt it was amazingly well acted by the whole cast, the cinematography was beautifully executed with interesting visuals, the music supported the theme of the day and genre of film and I felt that Mendes pulled it all together very nicely. An excellent outing, thoroughly recommended which is now streaming on Disney+.

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