Thursday, March 30, 2023
Mackay and Whitsunday Life
Sam Mendes’s ‘Empire of Light’ is beguiling, undoubtedly, eventually finding a flow after its early portions, which can often feel overwrought or anxious.
Directing and penning the film, Mendes has a deal to contend with. Though, with his credentials, audiences can back him. He has an immense and startling array of talent at his disposal – the invariably praised cinematographer Roger Deakins; the presently-deified (and justifiably so) Olivia Coleman. Yet, despite everything, the film begins in a woozy malaise, not knowing what it wishes to be. Ode to Cinema? Love story? Political and social commentary? An admixture of all?
Set against the backdrop of a post-Margaret Thatcher ‘80s Britain, the rheumy-eyed Hilary Small (Coleman) returns to, what is for her, drab work at a local cinema within her coastal township after her stay in a mental health institution.
Luckily, as is the case with Coleman’s Hilary, the film’s feeling of ennui subsides as hers does, and Empire of Light finds its feet through performances from Toby Jones, Michael Ward, and Coleman herself, as well as the faultless Deakins. At times, his cinematography is painterly: its landscapes remind of the piercing, evenly lit outdoor works of Edward Hopper; its interiors eerily akin to the painter's 'New York Movie'. Empire of Light is more of an art-deco-infused pastiche, with Deakins’ propensity for the gloriously long, drawn-out shadows.
Hilary is drawn out from her depression by the young, handsome, and black Stephen (Ward), a new hire at the cinema who rejuvenates her. I mention his race as it becomes the film’s central political treatise: The Thatcher-fuelled small town despises him, causing more misery for Hilary.
At its end, we are left with a question. Will their romantic tryst pull Hilary from here tristesse? That remains ambiguous. For most viewers, though, they may be dubious: the ending echoes Anton Chekov's The Lady with the Dog, only far more saccharine. There is a gesture towards hopefulness in its closing narration – a reading of Philip Larkin’s poem The Trees. We wonder, will love begin “afresh, afresh, afresh?”
Often moving, Empire of Light makes a grandiose sweep at love and loneliness with the help of a cinematographer at his zenith.
Empire of Light (MA15+) opens at the Bowen Summergarden Cinema on Tuesday, April 4.
Review by Declan Durrant
Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light is a film of exquisite beauty courtesy of seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins