‘Empire Of Light’ spotlights the magic of human connection

‘Empire Of Light’ spotlights the magic of cinema and connection | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 16 January 2023   By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

Set in an unnamed coastal town in 1980 to 81 – quickly identifiable as Margate, beautifully captured in the cinematography of Roger Deakins – Sam Mendes’s first film as writer and director is a love letter to a certain kind of pre-multiplex cinema: in this case, the Empire, a once-magnificent Art Deco edifice that is long past its best, many of its great rooms deserted and dilapidated.

Even so, projectionist Toby Norman (Toby Jones) still celebrates the enduring value of the movie house as a secular civic temple, and of film itself as a final throw of the dice for the humanism that celebrates the physical gathering of people to share an experience. 
The film adverts that we see in the background – for Raging Bull, The Blues Brothers and Stir Crazy – whisk us back to an era when superhero cinematic universes, big-budget features made by digital streaming services and multiple screens simultaneously showing the latest Avatar were still decades in the future. Yet as cinema chains struggle for their very existence in the post-pandemic, recessionary world of 2023, there is a strong air of elegy to Mendes’s film.
As strong as the ensemble cast is (especially Colin as the tawdry boss, Donald Ellis), Empire Of Light belongs to Olivia Colman, who plays duty manager Hilary Small: a profoundly damaged person, dosed with lithium to minimise the symptoms of her bipolar condition, painfully isolated. In this respect, Empire Of Light stands in the tradition of films such as Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces Of Eve (1957), John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence (1974) and James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted (1999). The depiction of schizophrenia is also, as Mendes has said, closely informed by his experience of the mental illness suffered by his mother Valerie (now 83).

Into the staffroom and Hilary’s life walks a handsome, much younger Black man, Stephen (Micheal Ward, excellent) whom she first befriends and then romances. She simultaneously clings to Stephen as an almost unimaginable ray of hope in her diminished existence – but also encourages him to reach higher and to flee their seaside limbo to pursue his ambition to become an architect.
Empire Of Light – which takes its title from a Magritte painting – will inevitably invite comparison with Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming homage to cinema, The Fabelmans (general release, 27 January). But it is better understood on its own terms as a fine British period piece, a splendid addition to the Mendes oeuvre and proof, in Colman’s stunning performance, of the very point that it sets out to make about the immersive, empathetic power of movies – and what is at stake today, as cinemas everywhere fight to survive.

Here are this week’s recommendations.

‘Empire Of Light’ spotlights the magic of cinema and connection | Soho House


Tár (selected cinemas, 13 January)
Todd Field’s dazzling third feature film has been widely interpreted as a commentary upon cancel culture and #MeToo, and the movie certainly addresses both themes without fear or favour.

Yet Tár is in no sense an exercise in polemic or ideological score-settling, and its true subject – the nature, origins and human cost of art – is not one that lends itself to glib messages. Instead, we are introduced to and overwhelmed by the formidable figure of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, in one of the best performances of the past year), celebrated composer and conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as she prepares to record Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Oscillating between tyrannous genius and psychological collapse, she is certainly due an eighth Oscar® nomination and perhaps a third golden statuette (she picked up a fourth Golden Globe on Tuesday). 

‘Empire Of Light’ spotlights the magic of cinema and connection | Soho House
‘Empire Of Light’ spotlights the magic of cinema and connection | Soho House


The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis 
Thirteen years since the publication of Imperial Bedrooms – the sequel to his sensational 1985 debut Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis returns to the scene of his first novel in this beguiling, auto-fictional account of a 17-year-old pupil called ‘Bret’ at the exclusive Buckley College in Los Angeles, in 1981. 

The narrator celebrates ‘numbness as a feeling, numbness as a motivation, numbness as the reason to exist, numbness as ecstasy’. Yet the noir-ish turn of the plot forces him to confront gruesome reality, the horrors that lurk beneath the shiny surface of his life and the proximity of death. What, I wonder, will today’s younger readers make of the former enfant terrible who thrilled another generation?


‘Nothing Left To Lose’ by Everything But The Girl 
Everything But The Girl’s Ben and Tracey are back after 24 years since 1999’s Temperamental. Aware of the pressures attached to such a long-awaited comeback, the pair recorded Fuse in secret at their home studio in Bath. They needn’t have worried – lead single ‘Nothing Left To Lose’ shows they’ve lost none of their ability to create soulful electronica. Tracey Thorn’s voice is even richer than you remember, and the beats are as deep, gorgeous and urgent as they’ve ever been.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the week and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media