Sam Mendes was on a pretty solid streak, starting with “American Beauty” and ending with “Skyfall.” It seemed like his heart wasn’t in “Spectre,” but there were moments where his genius shone through. Then he delivered the masterpiece that is “1917.” So, along with everyone else, I was looking forward to “Empire of Light,” where he follows the duty manager, Hilary (Olivia Colman), of the Empire Cinema. She shares an amicable relationship with her colleagues, particularly with Norman (Toby Jones), Neil (Tom Brooke), and Delia (Tanya Moodie). And her boss, Donald (Colin Firth), regularly requests her to jack him off, and she obliges because of the very obvious power dynamic. Things start to look up when the new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), joins the squad, and Hilary strikes up a romantic relationship with him. But the deteriorating condition of England and Hilary’s mental state leads to various issues, and cinema ends up being the one element that keeps them all going.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Stephen’s race isn’t addressed when he enters the Empire Cinema because, evidently, none of the employees there are racists. It’s possible that since Hilary and the rest of them are White and their lives revolve around that movie theater, they aren’t even aware of the severity of the bigotry coursing through their town. They think that since music and the films featuring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder promote coexistence between races, it’s not an issue. But one day, when Hilary tails Stephen, she witnesses three neo-Nazi skinheads racially abusing him by telling him to go back to where he came from because he’s apparently taking away their jobs. Later on, a customer at the theater comes close to throwing a racial slur at Stephen just because he requested this man to finish his snacks before going in because no one’s allowed to bring in food from the outside. The worst racial incident happens when a group of those skinheads barges into the theater, vandalizes the place, and severely injures Stephen. That prompts Hillary to finally act against racism. However, it’s too little, too late. Before leaving for college, Stephen underscores the fact that racism isn’t going anywhere and is going to haunt everyone who looks like him.
It’s admirable for a director to tackle racism because of its never-ending and heinous nature. But every time a White director comments on racism, it feels like they are either superficially apologizing for the sins of their ancestors as well as for the fact that they never cast Black actors in the role of the protagonist, or they are scripting racially charged moments to act out their sadistic fantasies. I am hoping it’s the former in the case of “Empire of Light” because of how surface-level and one-note Stephen’s character is. The two plot beats associated with him that’ll probably stick with you are the racial attacks on him and his inadvertent triggering of Hilary’s mental breakdown. In this day and age, you can’t just prop up Black actors, say “racism exists,” and then walk away. Do something about it. Use your privilege to put them in roles that celebrate their existence. The only moment where Mendes doesn’t treat him stereotypically is when he talks to Norman about how a projector works. The movie should’ve had more scenes like that, as it would’ve fleshed out Stephen instead of making him the personification of the film’s hollow statements on racism.
From the opening moments of the film, we are told that Hilary is undergoing therapy to make sure that she is mentally and physically stable. After assuming that Stephen is going to fall in love with her and subsequently realizing that Delia has a better chance with him, she loudly reprimands him for mocking an elderly customer at the theater. She specifically tells him that one shouldn’t laugh at people, thereby hinting that she has been publicly ridiculed for her behavior. When Stephen tries to get her to talk about her previous romantic escapades, she gets incredibly furious and then apparently forgets all about her quarrel with him. The moment when Neil tells her to be careful because he doesn’t want her to repeat her romantic mistakes again shows that there’s a pattern to her behavior. Her public outburst on the premiere night of “Chariots of Fire” causes Donald to blurt out that she has been employed despite the social workers’ suggestion not to do so. And when Stephen finally confronts her about her issues, she blames it on childhood trauma and the men in her life for it. Seconds after this disclosure, she is taken away to a mental hospital by Rosemary Bates (Monica Dolan), where she begins her recovery process again.
I’m not very sure what Sam Mendes is trying to say through Hilary because the handling of her mental illness is very cliche and shallow. He goes through all the familiar beats that we’ve seen before in better movies about victims suffering from a similar illness. And he skips the part where we can (and probably must) see what it takes to recover from such a heartbreaking experience. Wouldn’t that have been educational for viewers and made them empathetic towards Hilary and her condition? “Empire of Light” runs into another problem by commenting on sexism through Hilary. She brings up very valid points about the male-dominated society and how, despite being the aggressors, men don’t pay for their transgressions while women are unfairly punished. However, the focus on her mental state is so much more than the cause—which is the trauma inflicted upon her by her mother, her teacher, her doctor, and Donald—that the takedown of misogyny and internalized misogyny becomes diluted. Most of us know that bad parenting and abusive relationships can impact a person mentally. So, reiterating that to us is pointless. If Mendes wanted to get to the people who don’t associate trauma with sexism and problematic upbringing, he should’ve done more. Because, now, all they’re going to see are the ramblings of a woman in need of medical and professional help instead of identifying its cause.
Mendes’s observations of loneliness are probably the movie’s best aspect, but sadly it isn’t explored in detail. Hilary’s daily routine shows that there’s no one in her life. She finds solace in the most decrepit area of the Empire Cinema. And the saddest part is that, despite catering to hundreds of people on a daily basis, she doesn’t join them in the communal experience that is watching a movie in a theater. Norman describes the process of projecting a film as moving the frames of a reel at such a speed that the darkness between them becomes invisible. It’s so poetic and yet so haunting because it seems like he isn’t just trying to evade the darkness that exists between those frames but also the one that exists in his life as well. If you think that’s sad, well, prepare for the punch to the gut that comes when Norman talks about his estranged relationship with his son because Norman presumably abandoned him. When Hilary asks Norman the reason he left, he says that he doesn’t even remember. The obvious assumption is that he doesn’t want to share the information. However, there’s a good chance that he doesn’t remember because the lines between his life story and the countless ones that he has projected have blurred.
Despite the overall bleakness of this particular subplot, it feels nice to see an aspect of cinema that’s often overlooked, i.e., the people who run a theater. There’s no doubt that moviemaking is an incredibly tough job. But once the film is locked and loaded to go, it’s up to these overworked and underpaid individuals to make sure that the work of art is presented and consumed in the most ideal conditions possible. We always remember our worst theater experiences, and we love to complain about the problems with the projector, the subpar sitting conditions, the unclean floors, the bad snacks, etc. However, when things go smoothly, we don’t even remember that there’s a small army of people making sure that the only thing you take back is the experience of watching a good movie. As shown in “Empire of Light,” it’s a thankless job, and, save for a few, a lot of people’s hearts aren’t in it because they treat it as a job and not as a necessary arm of the entertainment industry. Why would they? The entertainment industry doesn’t treat them all that fairly. It’s only because of dedicated people like Norman who overcome their unhappiness and teach the ropes to the next generation of projectionists that the magic of cinema is alive. So, the next time you have a good viewing experience, don’t forget to thank your ticket checker, the person behind the snack corner, and the projectionist.
Escapism Through Cinema
The biggest missed opportunity—and I don’t know how Mendes committed this mistake in a movie about a movie theater—is the therapeutic and healing power of a film. It’s reserved for that one scene at the end where Hilary finally decides to watch a film chosen by Norman and understands the medium’s magical powers. It’s a beautifully crafted moment, but that’s about it. The emotional weight that it deserves is absolutely missing. There are many reasons for that, but the primary one is the surprisingly small amount of time spent observing the impact of various films on various groups of viewers. That time is dedicated to creating a contrast between what is happening on the screen and what is happening in real life. As mentioned before, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor can defy social norms and choose to work together. But, in real life, there’s no such choice, and social norms are simply thrust upon Stephen. And, at the cost of sounding repetitive, that’s about it. Because after that, Mendes becomes too busy dealing with all the other subplots that have nothing to do with movies or the theater.
That’s when you are forced to ask, “If this movie wasn’t centered around a film theater, would it have been any different?” If the central location had been a diner, a laundromat, a fire station, a police station, a railway station, or a grocery shop, would it have made any difference? If your answer is “no,” then that means that Mendes didn’t do justice to the film’s primary location and the one thing that allows us to escape our mundane lives and travel to various places from our local theater. As the characters are so desperately trying to escape their real-world issues, Mendes could’ve commented on the real versus fictional contrast by showing the real-life impact of the movies based on fictional stories that they project on a daily basis. Then that final moment would’ve attracted a proper emotional response. Since the nuances of the relationship between a film and its audience aren’t peppered throughout the screenplay, and despite Colman’s amazing performance, Hilary’s triumphant climax seems frivolous. With all that said, I’ve got to admit that cinema is highly subjective in nature. Hence, there’s a good chance that your reaction to “Empire of Light” can be the polar opposite of mine, and you can find yourself bawling at the sight of Olivia Colman crying while watching “Being There.”