(Empire of Light • 2022 ‧ 1h 59m • Showtimes London
Wed 7 Dec • The Cinema in the Arches, 3,1 km·Battersea, 22 Arches Lane, LONDON SW11 8AB, United Kingdom, 18:00)
"Empire Of Light"
"Empire Of Light" is a story about love, friendship, and connection, set in a coastal town in Southern England against the social turmoil of the early 1980s. Hilary (Olivia Colman), a woman with a difficult past and an uneasy present, is part of a makeshift family at the old Empire Cinema on the seafront. When Stephen (Micheal Ward) is hired to work in the cinema, the two find an unlikely attraction and discover the healing power of movies, music and community.
Hilary is a middle-aged woman who lives alone on the coast and has worked in the cinema for a few years. At the beginning of the story, Hilary has come out of a mental health episode that has put her on medication. She doesn’t really feel anything very strongly. She’s going through the motions at work. She lives alone, doesn’t speak to anyone, it’s a pretty lonely existence, and she wants to feel more. She has a complicated past and some demons of her own but, in the way that ad hoc families can support each other, she has been embraced by this eccentric bunch that work in the cinema. She’s struggling to find a meaningful relationship in her life, when Stephen, who's open-hearted and gentle but still very young, also comes to work there. The story of a lost soul who finds a strange family within the cinema is not unusual. That's when Stephen enters her life. Stephen loves and adores The Specials, and The Beat, and The Selecter and all the two-tone recording artists, that particular meeting of ska and punk, which was in it's heyday. Stephen must walk through a racist world, whether it’s by a reactionary government or violent youths, but keeps true to himself as he finds an unlikely connection with Hilary, and with the cinema itself.
He’s been rejected by universities and he’s at a crossroads and trying to find himself. When something like that's taken away from you, you've to find something else that fulfills you. He’s a young Black man, excited by the opportunities in life; he loves people, loves to connect with music and movies, and he refuses to allow an oppressive society to define who he's. Stephen is not naïve, the racism that he experiences is real and hurtful in so many ways, but he doesn’t let his trauma define him. Hillary is dazzled by him. She transforms, from feeling nothing, to feeling tingles. And she comes off her medication and then goes through phases to a point where she's heroic in her mania. Stephen gives Hilary a lot of optimism, a lot of love, a lot of enthusiasm, exposure to different culture and art, and his experiences. She gives him her perspective, life impression, her love of poetry and words, and just simple encouragement. She sees him. They both have been slightly ostracized from society, and that connective tissue draws them together, whether they realize it or not. It’s an exchange of energies and love. They give each other things that they don’t even know they need. Hilary has never met anyone like Stephen before, and that allows her to figure out who she's as a person as well.
Norman (Toby Jones) is an old-school projectionist, it’s a very skilled job and he takes it incredibly seriously. Because he has to change reels every fifteen minutes, he pretty much lives constantly in the projection room, where he has to attend each film. What we find out is that, like many of the characters, he has found a refuge in the cinema. And it's that inspiring space, that gives him a kind of empathy or understanding of Hilary’s troubled mind. He loves film, and he’s an enigma, until he isn’t. Today, the art of film projection has largely passed to digital, but Norman is part of a time when films were projected by a skilled professional using two machines, with celluloid passing by an arclight, watching for secret signals to switch reels. Because Norman has been projecting films for decades. There’s an element of timing in it, as you switch between projectors, and of careful manipulation, how you hook up the celluloid as it passes through the projector. They see themselves as the last link in the chain.
Janine (Hannah Onslow) is another worker at the cinema. She’s eighteen years old, in that in-between stage of being a teenager and becoming an adult. It’s a turning point in her life and she doesn’t really know what she wants to do, so she’s focusing on simple things, music, going out with friends and looking for a boyfriend. Like Hilary, she forms quite a strong relationship with Stephen, but she contrasts with Hilary. Janine’s whole life is ahead of her, while for Hilary, there are a lot of ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves'. Delia (Tanya Moodie) is Stephen’s remarkable and unwavering mother. While her son is first-generation British-born, Delia is an immigrant to Britain from Trinidad and her experiences with racism once in the UK caused them both great pain that have conditioned her to be distrustful of white people.
For most people, their most formative period is their teenage years. The late ’70s and early ’80s: the music, the movies, the pop culture of that period generally formed who we're. It was a period of great political upheaval in the U.K., with a great deal of very incendiary racial politics, but at the same time, an amazing period for music and for culture generally, very creative, very politicized, very energized. We've.always feel the 80s were an incredibly prolific and extraordinary time in music, you had a number of different forces all coalescing around the same time. Everyone had a clique, some were floppy haired New Romantics, some were wearing their two-tone suits, some were into heavy metal, some were Goths like Janine in the movie, listening to Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure. "Empire Of Light" itself, however, is a movie almost entirely born out of the pandemic. Lockdown was a period of intense self-examination and reflection for all of us. And for us it means starting to confront these memories that we've been wrestling with since childhood. That's the spur to write, to explore those memories and to see if we can unlock anything interesting.
Movies deal in mythic landscapes. You’re always looking for a point where the past becomes somehow bigger in scale, and greater in theme, and more fabled than the present. Looking back now, this period in England seems that to us one where the intersection of racial politics and music and movies was particularly special and unusual. The film wants to explore some of the ties that bring us together, the music, the movies, and the makeshift families that get us through. At the center of the film is their relationship, though they seem different in every conceivable way, they find a rite of passage that brings them both some degree of happiness and strength. In the middle of lockdown there was a racial reckoning in the world. We were left alone to contemplate how our own racial politics had been formed, and whether we had fallen down in our attempts to make sure the world was evolving. We're all worried whether the cinema was going to die, along with live performances. So, all of those things have gone into this movie, and in that regard, it’s quite raw. The politics of the period, especially the racial politics, Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as society’, the racism of Enoch Powell and the National Front, the Brixton riots, the Toxteth riots, the high unemployment and extreme divisiveness, all fed into the music and the culture of the period.
Those diverse bands were able to make great music whilst still being politically relevant. Songs about unemployment, and the death of the inner cities, about teenage pregnancy, and kids who had nothing to do but drink, and about Thatcher, a song like ‘Ghost Town’, for example, could go straight to number one. Those songs were part of the popular culture, and those bands were a great creative melting pot of black and white that has never quite been achieved again. There’s an extraordinary art deco glory to it, there’s a sense that it was built in the 1930s and now it’s 1980 and it’s beginning to creak and crumble. You look at "Empire Of Light" and it feels as though it’s a world away, and yet on another level, we still see the themes every day in contemporary life. "Empire Of Light" is a valentine not just to movies, but to movies as exhibited in the cinema. That little beam of light is escape, and we believe it’s a human need to escape life, to let our imaginations be released to find another part of ourselves either in books, or music, or theatre, or in this case in the cinema.