American Beauty and Skyfall director Sam Mendes has said that his ninth feature as a director was inspired by his mother’s struggle with mental health. Don’t expect a bildungsroman of the calibre of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. The autobiographical material begins and ends with Hilary Small (played with a little too much abandon by Olivia Colman), a troubled front-of-house manager in a fading cinema in Margate, on the south coast of England, in 1982.
If Mendes had gone the full Fabelmans, as Spielberg has done, Empire of Light might have been a more persuasive piece of cinema.
To be fair, it’s well-staffed, heartfelt and beautifully made. Cinematographer Roger Deakins finds extraordinary tableaux in fading art deco interiors and seaside promenades. Colin Firth channels period sleaze as a married predator; Toby Jones is a delight as the kindly projectionist.
Still, the central romance between Hilary and the devastatingly handsome new usher, Stephen, played by Top Boy’s promising star Michael Ward, never rings true. Nor does Hilary’s sudden shock at discovering racism in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
Pivoting a white lady’s psychodrama around racial tensions makes for an uncomfortable plot device and some awkward moments, as when Hilary purchases a two-tone album for Stephen because “black kids and white kids meeting up together makes it all normal”.
Mendes’s script, though it contains some memorable scenes, tries to do too much, as it takes on racial and sexual inequality, mental-health issues and, incongruously, the romance of cinema.
It doesn’t hang together. The carefully curated fleapit programme – The Blues Brothers, Stir Crazy, Being There, Chariots of Fire, Raging Bull, 9 to 5 – cries out to be the centrepiece of a wistful British reprise of Cinema Paradiso. Elsewhere, Olivia Colman’s character (as she downward spirals) cries out “To f*ck or not to f*ck” at a ritzy film premiere.
It’s impossible to guess what the twinkly, end-of-the-pier piano score by the usually reliable Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was supposed to evoke.
Empire of Light is released today