Empire of Light

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

5/5 (1)

Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs a moody melodrama against the backdrop of an historic British cinema in the film “Empire of Light.” The meaningful performances combined with the intriguing English seaside setting draws us in most definitively, yet its drama is predictable, somewhat losing the vital and fanciful spark of the movies as a medium.

The Empire is an Art Deco cinema in Margate, Kent in the year 1981. In its 1933 heyday it had three huge screens including a spacious upper hall. Though the paint is peeling and the velvet is stained, against the seashore it still carries romantic glamour.

Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a floor manager. She does anything necessary to ensure the theater runs smoothly. But one look at her flat face communicates that Hilary is not happy. Life is a sad drudgery. Suddenly new life ignites in the appearance of Stephen (Michael Ward) a black man in his 20s. Hilary is smitten and intrigued. The two begin a workplace affair and Hilary’s demons and mania are largely vanquished.

But when usher Neil (Tom Brooke) sees them kiss, Stephen retreats. This sets off a sequence of volatile behavior from Hilary who gets progressively worse.

Coleman’s performance is wonderful. She is completely authentic and her facial expressions are both painful and poignant. Michael Ward too is terrific. His role is rich with feeling edged with a tranquility that is close to Zen.

In the film’s most upsetting scene, racist skinheads smash the cinema lobby and brutally attack Stephen to within an inch of his life. The horrid incident cements the bond Hilary and Stephen share, one struggling with the demons of mania and the other racism. Hilary upsets a film premiere and Stephen sustains great physical injuries.

Both of them love the cinema but the aspects and particulars of why and how they relate to it is largely left out. The projectionist (Toby Jones) is pale and enigmatic. He is an extension of the projection itself, but there is little about him. When asked by Hilary why he left his family, he replies that he has forgotten.

Existentialism is compelling but one wishes for more about the wondrous realms of the cinema and the paradisiacal structures that house them. The segments showing the Empire against a blue sky laced with the sound of seagulls together with the finger of Art Deco neon pointing to nighttime fireworks are beautiful but such charm wants for memories, ghosts and spirits, supernatural or otherwise.

The Empire, known in actuality as The Dreamland, stands as the actual unrequited lover of Sam Mendes but there is no doubt that it will live to tell on the shore by the sea in Kent.

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com

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