“To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”*

*William Blake

The distinguished American film critic, Richard Brody, writes in his review of Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light (2022),

“American society, thin on formalities, exerts little pressure on solitary characters, whereas British life, which is more formal and punctilious, may add structure to lives that otherwise have little of it.”

(I feel he could sell that to some examining body as an exam question: “Discuss”.)

Although Brody notes that the film is set in Margate “in the early nineteen-eighties” and explains that it’s “a provincial seaside town on the southern coast of England”, I’m not sure he was tuned in to the specificity of the time and place:

Since seeing the film, I’ve read a range of reviews.

I felt it owed something to Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), and indeed Peter Bradshaw opens his review,

“The “love letter to the movies” is a tricky genre, teetering on maudlin industry indulgence; my own rule is that any film, on any subject, if it is any good, is already a love letter to the movies.”

It would be near impossible to view this film on the big screen without succumbing to the cinematography of Roger Deakins combined with a plangent piano score, not to mention the tracks from the seventies and eighties:

https://www.radiotimes.com/movies/empire-of-light-soundtrack/

Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for New York and Vulture. He doesn’t like the film, but does highlight a scene which goes unmentioned by other reviewers:

“We learn from an early doctor visit that Hilary has been taking lithium. “Marvelous stuff,” the physician opines, but Hilary wants to stop taking it.”

Ouch.

https://www.nhs.uk/medicines/lithium/

As Brody sees it, “Hilary is also having an affair, of sorts, with her boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), the theatre’s general manager, who is married.”

Although Hilary may not, formally speaking, be a “vulnerable adult”, she is, nonetheless, vulnerable. It emerges that Ellis was persuaded by social workers to employ Hilary Small on the understanding he would “keep an eye on her”. He seems to have understood this as “extract sexual favours from her”; Olivia Colman’s gloomy trudge to his office hardly suggests a woman in hot pursuit of an affair.

Matt Zoller Seitz puts his finger on our unease when he writes,

“(Between Stephen and Hilary’s on-site trysts and Ellis’ exploitation of Hilary, this theater is an employment lawyer’s gold mine.)”.

Jericho Tadeo is the critical exception in paying attention to Tom Brooke’s character:

“Brooke plays Neil, one of the employees at the Empire, who, though quiet and somewhat soft-spoken, holds true to his values and love of cinema. Indeed, he’s one of the warmest characters that the audience meets in Empire of Light. “I was taken by the fact that he stands up to his boss in support of Hilary,” Brooke said, referring to a pivotal moment between Neil and Mr. Ellis (played by Colin Firth). “He’s just a nice guy. He doesn’t have a side to him. He’s discreet, friendly, supportive, and kind, and I don’t think the Neils of the world get enough credit.””

Richard Brody does pick up from the script Hilary’s indication of

“past troubles and past horrors, of a hard childhood and subsequent abuses, of thwarted dreams and stifled rage”,

while Clarisse (“it’s just important to keep your voice loud and consistent”) Loughrey grumbles that “Empire of Light cares only that Hilary wear that heartbreak for all to see. What sparked it is anyone’s guess.”

Peter Bradshaw describes the predicament of Colman’s character thus:

“Hilary, who lives alone, and who appears to be in treatment for some undiscussed breakdown the year before, is sliding further into unhappiness, made worse by her toxic relationship with a smugly uncaring married man who says hideously unsexy things during the act itself (“Your arse feels so good in my hands”).”

I don’t think that’s the most unsexy thing Firth’s character says. My award in that category goes to: “You’re very helpful”.

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