Empire of Light

There were three major nostalgic films about the film industry in the past year: “babyface” Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022) — his second attempt at remaking Singin’ in the Rain (1952) next to La La Land (2016) with the same skilful directing and editing; Stephen Spielberg’s autobiographical The Fabelmans (2022), which is loosely based on the big-name director’s adolescence and early filmmaking career; as well as Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light (2022), a film not about filmmaking but set in the “Empire Cinema” in the early 1980s in a coastal town in England. The three directors were born two decades apart from each other, yet all have won the Academy Awards for Best Director and all finished writing their original screenplays during the pandemic — perhaps the lockdown had prompted them to reconsider their shared obsession with cinema, especially for Spielberg and Mendes, who, after decades of doing mostly adaptation and commercial production, were given the time to reflect on what had inspired them to make films in the first place.

All three films feature a scene in which the protagonist is watching a film (and affected by it) at cinema. From top to bottom: Babylon, The Fabelmans, Empire of Light.

Another recurring theme (and crucial technique) in the field of cinema is light(ing), embodied in the hazardous speed-driving that the protagonist of Babylon takes on for delivering a camera to an outdoor filming location before the sun sets; or the torchlights that the six-year-old Spielberg character uses to recreate a night-time train crash scene with his toy train sets and an 8mm camera; or, the light of Empire of Light, of Empire Cinema, coming from the projection room onto the big screen, transforming the dark, static films into lively stories and moving images. Lighting does more than just yielding the transparent negatives and depicting the time in the stories, but is also an affective tool that generates, in the cases of the three films, senses of nostalgia and affection (for films).

A scene in Empire of Light that depicts the projection room at Empire Cinema.

Yet, Empire of Light is not exactly about Empire Cinema itself, but the people who work there. The film starts with the duty manager, Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) opening the cinema by turning on its gezellige lights on the Christmas Eve of 1980. Hilary is peaceful, smiley towards the cinemagoers, and very much at ease with her job. However, her life is not as tranquil as it appears, which can be told from her constant gazing into the abyss as if she is contemplating nothingness. Ten minutes into the film, we’ve learned that she struggles with bipolar disorder (extreme mood swings) for which she is prescribed lithium by her GP, lives alone with no social life outside her workplace, and has been made her boss Donald Ellis’ (Colin Firth) office mistress. Just before the new year arrives, Stephen (Micheal Ward), a black British man, joins the crew as the new employee, and Hilary is carried away with the young, handsome, and caring newcomer, especially under the New Year’s Eve fireworks that light up their faces on the rooftop of Empire Cinema.

The director Sam Mendes turned 16 in 1981, a year when Thatcher was in power, when Chariots of Fire (1981) premieres at Empire Cinema, when Stephen encounters racist customers and becomes the victim of skinhead violence, and when Hillary and Stephen’s underground sexual relationship turns into a more profound connection. Empire of Light is not the first Mendes film that deals with age-gap relationships. While Mendes complicates Kevin Spacey’s character’s sexual reverie of an underage girl in his successful debut American Beauty (1999) by filming it in a voyeuristic, predatory fashion, Empire of Light takes a different turn, as the relationship between Hilary and Stephen is not an asymmetrical, non-consensual one but one that is built on the common field that they are both problematic subjects: one troubled by serious mental illness, loneliness, and workplace abuse, and the other by racism, violence, and the coming-of-age senses of loss and aimlessness. 

Despite that Empire of Light’s film score is nowhere near to surpassing that of American Beauty, the film does have very good casting, from every staff member at Empire Cinema who each has a distinct personality to the talented, gorgeous Micheal Ward, then to Colin Firth’s portrayal of the hypocritical, obnoxious cinema entrepreneur. Instead of gay-facing in films about bourgeois middle-aged/old gay men feeling miserable and conforming to normative rite-of-passage narratives (cf. A Single Man, 2009; Supernova, 2020), Firth is sadly more suitable for playing a petty-bourgeois straight white man of power. And there’s the Olivia Coleman, who can perform from the Queen of England to a sex-addict lesbian, from a sickened, fragile patient to a raging predator, to even a loving mother (of rabbits!) — all of these in the same film (cf. The Favourite, 2018)! That said, Coleman is the perfect cast to play someone with bipolar disorder. She looks/acts as if she has the capacity to annihilate the entire world, while making you either hate her guts (cf. Fleabag, S. 1, 2016) or empathise with her for her chaos, distress, and mental instability (cf. The Lost Daughter, 2021; Empire of Light, 2022).


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