Mendes: Empire of Light (2022)

There seems to be a trend whereby critics feel compelled to disavow films that revel too openly in cinephilia. Perhaps it’s because they feel that cinephilia is their domain, or perhaps it’s because films that are too overtly cinephilic tend to dissolve the very idea of critical acclaim into a more inclusive and less discriminating love for the medium. Whatever the reason, the critical disavowal of Empire of Light is as confounding as that of Babylon, since this is both a magnificent weepie and a tribute to cinema’s capacity to renew and restore us. Written and directed by Sam Mendes, the film unfolds in 1980, and revolves around a seaside cinema in Margate, and its various employees, with a particular focus on Hilary Small, the duty manager, played by Olivia Colman, and Stephen Murray, a new usher, played by Micheal Ward. Their romance plays out amongst a panorama of chance encounters, unexpected moments and serendipitous glimpses of warmth, all of which are peculiar to an experience that seems increasingly foreign in our digital-driven age: a collective physical public sphere.

However, even at the time that Empire of Light is set, this public sphere seems to be devolving into a melancholy desuetude. The enormous Empire theatre sits across the road from the wintry expanse of the ocean, the last threshold between the audience and the austerity measures that were starting to decimate English resort towns at this moment in time. Mendes digs deep into that seaside melancholy, with conversations that start in the theatre and balloon out to the deserted boardwalk, or the abandoned beach, while also emphasising all the sightlines of the ocean from the cinema itself – sightlines the cinema tries to fortify itself against. This produces a profound craving for closeness, with one character reflecting that “more than ever, we need to be, we need to feel, part of a community,” and a relish for the fleeting moments of connection that emerge from all the lives that pool around the Empire.

In that sense, Empire of Light is a testament to the capacity of cinematic venues to create what psychologist D.W. Winnicott called “holding environments” –  spaces that recreate the primal bond between mother and child, and provide us with solace, if not solutions, in the midst of crises. Mendes is entranced by the way that cinematic venues can provide us with a brief reprieve from our various melancholies, even if they don’t bring an end to them, producing a fragile tonality that oscillates between a fairy-tale optimism and a brittle bleakness; a tonality, in other words, that captures the high of entering a theatre, and the low of leaving it. Again, this tends to coalesce around the two main characters, Hilary and Stephen, who start a romantic relationship after exploring the abandoned uppermost floor of the Empire together. Snug in the dereliction of two ruined theatres, and a dusty mezzanine that offers panoramas of the wintry sea, the lovers use sex to enhance the holding power of the theatre, and vice versa, in a cinematic romance that can only make sense in the Empire.

Yet Empire of Light is not ultimately about this romance except as a particular instance of the hum of communion you receive when you enter a theatre – when you’re caught in a tensile web between the space, the people and the film you’re about to watch. We see very little of actual patrons in Mendes’ mise-en-scenes, but they’re not entirely absent either. Instead, the film continually dances at the interface between patrons and employees, the lobby and the theatre proper, and the beginnings and endings of films, to evoke the triangulation of bodies, images and architecture at the very moment it crystallises into a public sphere. Insofar as Empire of Light has a discrete subject, it’s the flow, layout and connective tissue that enable these moments of synergy, a fluidity that Mendes figures first and foremost in terms of light.

No surprise, then, that Roger Deakins is at the helm for one of the most ravishing exercises of his career. In his hands, Empire of Light becomes a cinematographic elegy for the picture palace as a momentary concatenation of light itself as a holding environment. In the opening scenes, we see the Empire come to life, one light fixture after another, until it appears to be composed entirely of warm light, only for Deakins to flood the subsequent mise-en-scenes with a surfeit of cold light, typically by positioning characters against the bleak brilliance of the ocean outside. From there, he gradually reconstructs the splendid opening sequence, bringing in a series of disquisitions from projector Norman (Toby Jones) to split the difference between the light that is projected onto the screen and the various fixtures, some functional but most ornamental, that light up the foyer. Watching Empire of Light thus took me back to a time when cinemas would use their vestibules to advertise the light show that was to come, a time when light itself was a source of wonder in a way that feels untenable in a world lit by digital devices. And this light structure is no mere metaphor either, since Mendes and Deakins recreated the contemporary Dreamland Margate during the production of the film, fitting it out with the luminous and pellucid touches they need to bring their cinematic vision ablaze.

This vision of the cinema as a transitory holding environment composed entirely of light supervenes any one plot point in Empire of Light, including those of Hilary and Stephen. Their romance is not, as some critics have condescendingly suggested, a ham-fisted expose of British race relations in the 1980s, but a melodramatic trope, a weepie vehicle, a way of keeping the film poised at the nexus between brittleness and sentiment that makes its evocation of the Empire itself so powerful. Hilary, in particular, embodies the film’s oscillation between cold and bright. When we first meet her, she’s medicated; later on, she’s hyperactive; then, she’s medicated again; and finally, she sees a film herself, a screening of Hal Ashby’s Being There. This doesn’t resolve her character or story, but precisely provides catharsis because it doesn’t need to, because it allows all the inchoate feelings of the theatre to mediate her and well up into one splendid incommensurability, as Peter Sellers observes on the screen that “life…is a state of mind.” The same goes for Stephen, who takes refuge in the Empire, and in Hilary, while on a break from his long-term love interest, and in the midst of the class riots of the early 80s, never finding a solution but finding solace that is precious precisely because it is fleeting and therefore dependable in a way that grander gestures are so often not. And it is that trust in the cinematic venue to hold us exactly because of, rather than despite, its transitory temporalities, that makes Empire of Light such a mercurial and mutable paean to theatres, and their alchemical evocation of a public sphere capable of briefly protecting us all.

About Billy Stevenson (892 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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