Empire of Light

Everyman Bristol
Hilary likes poetry. She inappropriately recites W.H Auden to an audience of civic dignitaries at a movie premier; and gives her beau Phillip Larkin as a going away present. When a colleague is stuck on a crossword clue, she's able to tell him that "Month of wasteland" is "April."

She's duty manager of the Empire, an obsolescent cinema in Margate, but she never bothers to actually watch a film. It's the olden days, which means Stir Crazy and Chariots of Fire and boxes of Maltesers for twenty pence. I doubt if the Empire would have shown Empire of Light: it's far too art-house. The pauses are long, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan gate-crash the sound track, and it's full of actors: Olivia Coleman, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and relative newcomer Michael Ward. And boy, do they act. Everyone articulates their feelings with just a little bit too much clarity and eloquence. On young Steven's first day at the cinema, Hilary shows him the disused ballroom on the top floor, and he cuts up one of his own socks to make a splint for a pigeon with a broken wing. As you do. Norman the projectionist can't be restrained from talking about the wonder of cinema, the marvel of static images turning into moving ones; the magic beam of light. And his estranged son. When Hilary finally decides to sit through a whole movie he shows her Being There. It's a pity he didn't have Brief Encounter to hand. 

The film's about the relationship between Steven -- young, straightforward, black -- and Hilary -- white, middle-aged and recovering from some kind of mental breakdown. With the possible exception of cinema manager Donald, who is having an affair with Hilary in his office behind his wife's back, everyone in the story is nice. The staff of the cinema welcome Hilary back into their team despite her unpredictable behaviour, and don't raise their eyebrows when it becomes clear that the younger black man and the older white woman are becoming an item. When Hilary relapses and is hospitalised, the romance ends, but Steven continues to visit her and help her as a friend. It's really all quite wholesome and lovely. The sex remains in discrete silhouette, although Olivia Coleman reportedly felt that it still went a Bit Too Far. While Hilary is in hospital, Steven resumes his relationship with a black girl of his own age, but everyone is open and straightforward about it. Even the social worker and the policeman who break down Hilary's door do so in the nicest way possible. 

I found the first two thirds very engaging indeed. It isn't immediately clear whether we're watching a Nostalgic Magic of Cinema piece, or a will-they won't-they romance. Coleman, of course, does a wonderful job moving from nice and normal to clearly very poorly indeed, via unpredictably volatile. But I felt it slightly lost its way in the final section, when a rampaging mob of undifferentiated racist neanderthals arrive unannounced and beat Steven up, just because. This produces a kind of crisis, but it's not a crisis which has got a great deal to do with anything which has happened up this point. 

So: it's about the last days of the old fashioned movie house. Or possibly about mental illness. Cross generational romance. How racist the '80s were. The redeeming magic of Peter Sellers. But it's hard to see how it fits together. Maybe it isn't supposed to. Early in the relationship, Steven and Hilary have an idyllic day on the beach; but it's spoiled by Hilary's erratic behaviour. What was it the poet said about connecting nothing with nothing?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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