A drama about the power of human connection during turbulent times, set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s.
Sam Mendes latest film, like many of his director peers recent works, is a love letter to his past and to cinema in general. It is ‘Empire of Love’, a romantic drama that sets itself in the English seaside town of Margate in the 1980s, and more specifically within the titular Empire cinema, where the characters we follow work. Mendes is attempting to draw parallels between the magic of cinema and real life, much like previous films such as ‘Cinema Paradiso’ have to great impact, but ‘Empire of Light’ struggles with a muddled screenplay and some contrived developments that don’t land as powerfully as intended.
The story primarily centres on the employees of the Empire cinema, specifically duty manager Hilary (Olivia Colman), a quiet and introverted woman who struggles with depression and connecting to others. Her life changes when new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) starts as an usher – he’s young, enthusiastic and full of life, and to Hilary’s surprise (and the audiences I suspect), he takes a romantic interest in her. The movie is mostly concerned with the romance that develops between Hilary and Stephen, against a backdrop of the challenges posed by her mental state and by the racist environment of the time that impacts on every aspect of Stephen’s life. She also has her lecherous boss Donald (Colin Firth) to contend with, who she’s been having a sad and awkward affair with.
The biggest issue ‘Empire of Light’ has is that I just wasn’t convinced by many of its plot developments, and that overshadowed the good acting, nice cinematography and the nostalgic cinema setting that ordinarily would have been catnip for me. It makes limited sense that Hilary retains her job, limited sense that her and Stephen enter into a romantic relationship and as Mendes tries to widen the scope to encompass the social and political climate of the time, it loses any focus it might have had. Too scattershot to make wider points and too dense to draw us into the personal relationships between the characters. Shout out to the always brilliant Toby Jones who shines as the cinema projectionist; there’s genuine magic in watching him embody this small character, and perhaps more of a focus on the cinema itself would have served ‘Empire of Light’ better, as opposed to using it as a jumping off point to attempt to (badly) cover racism at the time.
‘Empire of Light’ is a well-acted romantic drama with worthy ambitions, but it falls a bit flat and this is ultimately a movie with a good setting and premise, let down by poor writing. As the first film Mendes has written himself, it perhaps suggests his talents remain served best behind the camera.
Directed By: Sam Mendes
Starring: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke and Tanya Moodie