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"An illusion of life" Film Review: Empire of Light

© Fox Searchlight Pictures

I cannot deny I was looking forward to the release of this film. I was born in Margate and grew up in Broadstairs. This film is shot on location in these neighbouring towns on the south east corner of England. I have many childhood memories attached to the Dreamland Cinema that is the focus of the film and I am an avid fan of the cinematography of Roger Deakins. This film brought together the directing talents of Sam Mendes and a host of outstanding British actors, and with Deakins given the chance to present my hometown to the world with his award winning eye, this was a cinema event of unmatched possibility.

Or it should have been.

It is a sumptuous visual masterpiece, capturing the curious grandeur of the faded glory of a once prosperous seaside town. The art deco cinema which hosts so much of the action is the star of the show. This may indicate a way to begin to understand some of the issues with this film. It is uncertain as to what exactly it wants to be. The film starts out a little uncertain, out of focus and like a story seeking a subject. It does start to sharpen in on the themes of choice as it progresses, but for many, by then, the interest will have expired.

It has often been described as a latest entry into the limited genre of "love letter to cinema" but this feels like something that has been grafted onto a maudlin doomed romance tale, which itself has been smeared with the filth of racism. There is the spectre of mental health which stalks the film before muscling into the foreground. The film ebbs like the tide on the Margate sands and opportunities seem to be overlooked. Norman, the projectionist, played beautifully by Toby Jones, seems to be on screen to simply convey cinematic metaphors for the film to hang its hat on. As the film is meandering to a downbeat conclusion he suddenly brings a touching insight into his past, his frustrations and bad decisions. It pulls you in only to be packed away and not touched upon further. The film maybe could have benefitted from telling the stories of the multiple characters employed at the cinema. There is presence and promise, there are stories to be told but they feel like background scenery or simply foils in place to allow lead characters to reflect their own experiences. At times the cast are seen as reflections in the shot, Deakins capturing the essence of the spectral lives of others in the slim offerings of the script.

Olivia Colman is outstanding as the brooding silent angst driven lead, but it is probably fair to observe that we have seen this performance before. Colin Firth has made the transition from nice boys to unpleasant men with ease and while Michael Ward delivers a composed performance as the lead male, the relationship with Olivia Coleman's Hilary feels like a curious contrivance. In fact, Stephen spends the film in a space of curious contrivance, as if he is another mere plot device in Hilary's small world. There is a relentless feeling of impending doom hanging over him. So much so that when the moment of dread arrives, it is much more of a Bingo Hall moment for the audience than a cinematic statement. And a special mention must go to Tom Brooke as Neil who makes his limited role feel far more rounded than the script allows him to be.

The meandering strands and themes seem to come together in the second half of the film, with a clear focus emerging but by then it feels like a lost opportunity. Empire of Light is a small screen story on a big screen canvas. The care and detail Deakins displays is a delight, no shot is purely functional and for students of the craft this is a tour de force. The acting is impressive. But the tale is lacking. The various themes have been handled elsewhere in far better style. It leaves you wanting to find reasons to like it and perhaps the ambition that is evident in the title sets the film up to disappoint.

The Empire of alright was one cheeky, pithy review. This feels unfair. The film is earnest and at times moving. But it is distant, almost distracted. The illusion of life as set out by projectionist Norman as he explains the magic of cinema feels like a self afflicted curse for the piece : "'s just static frames, with darkness in between..." There seems to be a lack of light and as Norman also proffers - "...nothing happens without light."


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