Patrick Mulcahy on Mendes’ Margate on screen

After the critical and box office success of the virtuoso simulated single-take World War One film 1917, English director Sam Mendes could have pitched any movie he liked and got a green light. He has done exactly that with the decidedly niche Empire of Light, a film set in Margate in 1981 that mixes race, mental illness and cinema. At its centre is Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), the duty manager of the fictitious Empire Cinema – its real-life inspiration was called Dreamland – who is coerced into giving sexual favours to the general manager, Mr Ellis (Colin Firth in a thankless role), before beginning a relationship with front of house staff member Stephen (Michael Ward), born in the UK to Ghanaian parents. Hilary has a secret that only becomes apparent to Stephen after he criticises her sandcastle-building ability. It is only a matter of time before she snaps.

Mendes, who moved seamlessly from theatre to cinema with his Oscar-winning debut American Beauty, has helmed more hits than misses, including The Road to Perdition and two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. He doesn’t work as a director for hire, but he isn’t an auteur either. That said, mental illness and cultural disaffection appear in Mendes’ 2008 film adaptation of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The madness of the world outside is a feature of 1917.

Empire of Light is a throwback to the early output of FilmFour, the film arm of Channel Four, that showcased original screenplays by playwrights such as Hanif Kureishi, Mike Leigh, David Hare and Alan Bennett as well as the novelist Neil Jordan. In the early ’80s, FilmFour supported dramas that were a riposte to heritage cinema – contemporary (or at least post-war) dramas tackling social taboos. Mendes doesn’t tackle the taboo of Brexit, but as we – and Hillary – watch Stephen being taunted by a trio of skinheads, we are reminded of the racist, anti-European, anti-liberal rhetoric of Nigel Farage and others that have now been mainstreamed.

FilmFour’s most acclaimed work from the 1980s – My Beautiful Laundrette, Wish You Were Here, High Hopes – attacked conservative attitudes towards sex and class, with Thatcherism being the counterpoint. In the intervening decades, English films depicted heteronormative relationships with a postmodern edge. Characters simulate the ‘happy endings’ that the audience craves, but their coupling has no clear basis in reality.

Mendes’ film, which he also wrote, is as close to 1980s social realism as the director has ventured, with interracial and intergenerational sex scenes; Colman’s Hilary looks older than Stephen’s mother. The relationship is doomed from the start, not just from censorious looks – Stephen removes his head from Hilary’s shoulder on the bus home when we see he is being looked at – but also because their ambitions are misaligned. Hilary isn’t looking for a relationship and rails against men who have told her in the past what to do. She is also scornful towards her mother. Stephen wants to study architecture. He’s an idealised character; Mendes challenges stereotypes about the ambition of second-generation immigrants, but he also wants to support his mother, hard-working nurse Delia (Tanya Moodie).

While set against a backdrop of barely suppressed racism, the film offers the counterpoint of two-tone ska records – Black and white musicians performing together in bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. Stephen introduces Hilary to their music. She shares poetry with him by Tennyson and Larkin. Hilary’s poetry choices, including a cringe-making reading at the cinema’s premiere of Chariots of Fire, posits literature as a force that transcends prejudice and class.

Colman specialises in playing middle-aged women on the verge of breakdowns who assert themselves, often with fruity language. She is equally skilled in comedy and drama. Her performance as Hilary is well within her range. Ward’s Stephen is another of those young men who are tutored in love by older women. Mendes doesn’t critique Stephen’s involvement with an older woman who is otherwise exploited by her boss. He shows him as a man who can repair the wing of a wounded gull and send it off flying from the roof, which is as close to cliché as the film gets.

If there is one genre that gets less love from contemporary audiences as films about filmmaking, it is films about cinema. Empire of Light had a dismal theatrical opening in the US, with the industry still reeling from Covid. I confess to being irritated by the Empire’s lobby posters (I collected film posters in the early 1980s) including the ‘wrong’ Raiders of the Lost Ark poster on display pre-release (the production designer used the post-release redesign instead). Empire of Light pays homage to oppositional cinema of the early 1980s. It is Gregory’s Girl shown on the cinema’s second screen that is a touchstone of sorts.

Empire of Light is on general release from Monday 9th January

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