Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is a duty manager of a movie theatre in a town on the southern coast of England. She dislikes touching birds, does not sneak into the theatre for a movie because she believes it is only meant for customers, makes frequent visits to a psychiatrist, and rolls her eyes when her doctor informs her that she is four pounds overweight. She tops it off by indulging in a rather robotic affair with her boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). Leading an unremarkably lonely life with no family and friends, Hilary is hesitant to look at life as a glass half-full.
But that changes when a new employee, Stephen Murray (Michael Ward), opens the doors of the theatre for her (both literally and metaphorically). He is an aspiring student of architecture who leads with compassion and is full of hope, and joy (of course, he teaches Hilary the tricks to care for birds). The duo soon strike up a friendship which eventually morphs into a romantic relationship.
Empire of Light (English)
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Olivia Colman, Michael Ward, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Brooke
Runtime: 119 minutes
Storyline: The duty manager of a seaside cinema, who is struggling with her mental health, forms a relationship with a new employee on the south coast of England in the 1980s
The Sam Mendes directorial focuses on dissecting the racial tensions plaguing the seaside town in 1980s England and the treatment meted out to patients suffering from mental illness. But if you did not know who the director was when you started watching the movie, 20 minutes in, you’d have at least figured out that it is by a white man.
Though Sam captured the power imbalance and sexual politics in a movie like American Beauty, he falters in his latest.The lens he uses to capture the unequal power dynamic between Hilary and Stephen is vastly different from the one he uses to capture Hilary’s affair with Mr. Ellis. Even though in both cases it is a cycle of exploitation, the former is shown with adoration while the latter is scoffed on.
Similarly, his treatment of Hilary who suffers from schizophrenia is one filled with anxiety and uncertainty and her outbursts are turned into spectacles with a hint of shame. But watching Olivia fill Hilary’s shoes is a joy; she is masterful in her art and relays her character’s feeling of suffocation with ease. However, when she recites borrowed-cringe-inducing poems to further the plot and cement her character, she ends up diluting the themes of the film.
Ultimately, the movie is formulaic in dealing with the subjects it touches on and does not give enough time for scenes to breathe.
Sam Mendes expressing his love for cinema through the two characters is probably the only saving grace. Albeit riddled with cliches, the sentiment of films serving as an escape from the troubles of the world — while letting the audience make peace with themselves — is a strangely comforting end to a rather chaotic feature.
Empire of Light is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar