- May Mcnicol-Williams
Student film review of 'Empire of Light'
As a long-time fan of Oscar winner Olivia Colman, this latest edition to her and director Sam Mendes’ long list of accomplishments did not fail to meet my expectations.
Set in 1980’s Margate, a seaside town I have visited with family and friends many times, the film felt both unsettling and comforting as I saw the original Empire cinema in all its glory, along with Dreamland (the very first theme park in England) in its heyday.
Something that really stuck out to me while watching the film was the way Mendes showcased the lesser-known sides of Margate as well as the aspects which arguably put it on the map. The Lido, Dreamland and the eyesore of a brutalist- era block of flats poking out above the skyline, are all featured at some point, albeit briefly. The main location-based focus of the film is the now closed Empire Cinema, more specifically the forbidden area above the only active two screens in the cinema, which once housed another two screens, a dance studio, a bar and now home to a large colony of pigeons.
The two main characters, Hilary (Olivia Colman) and Stephen (Micheal Ward) first bond over the birds, with Hilary being fearful at first and Stephen finding them interesting and wanting to help an injured bird. The emphasis on helping the bird also had an impact on me, as both main characters seem to become increasingly intertwined with the bird. When Hilary and Stephen first meet, Hilary is very wary of Stephen until they spend some time together in the abandoned top floor of the cinema and discover the birds. Hilary’s hasty fear of the birds I believe represents her fear of herself in her worst states, like when she is in a manic episode caused by her bipolar disorder and becomes flighty, loud, agitated and aggressive towards those she loves and cares about. If you have ever approached a wild pigeon in London, it doesn't matter how calm you act or how kind your intentions may be, they will still likely spook and fly away. Stephen's first reaction to the birds is intrigue and secondly, wanting to help in any way he can, which is the same way he interacts with people, disregarding how they may have treated him.
Pigeons as a species have not been treated kindly by the human race which I believe to be a metaphor for the mistreatment of the two main characters by the authorities in place to help them. Both Hilary and Stephen have stints in the hospital, (Stephen for his injuries after a racist attack on the cinema, Hilary when she is sectioned after a manic episode) but neither are able to succeed in putting a stop to the problem. Hilary suffers from an incurable mental illness (BPD) and Stephen faces racism every day in his home in Margate, and so moves away to try and escape it. While the pair try their best to assist the bird, it unfortunately cannot repair the many years of abuse faced by the species before, or the fact that the injury will likely come back to plague the bird in the future, and again prevent it from flying. I believe this is a metaphor for the systemic racist abuse and insufficient mental health resources faced by Stephen and Hilary respectively.
This film (including all cast and crew) did an excelleny portraying these issues, (from my limited perspective) and i advise everyone who can to watch it ASAP. However, please be aware of potentially triggering topics such as the ones mentioned previously.
Thank you for reading my review of Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, and please remember that i am not a film studies student, I just really like films a lot.