You could say that Sam Mendes‘ Empire of Light is a past-tense, memory-lane, movie-theatre thing. But it isn’t really. Or not that much.
Set in rural England (Margate) in 1980, it’s about an interracial May-December affair — a strapping, good-looking black dude in his mid 20s (Michael Ward, the main protagonist) and a white, middle-aged, past-her-prime British woman in her mid to late 40s (Olivia Colman). Separated by more than 20 years. Such affairs are always short-term.
So it’s not so much about a Cinema Paradiso-type atmosphere (The Blues Brothers and All That Jazz on the marquee) as a stew of race and sexuality and mental health issues and callous paternalism. One could infer, even, that Empire of Light primarily occurs within the Mendes sensibility of here and now.
Colman is a movie-theatre manager with an unstable, schizzy temperament; Ward is working for her (selling and tearing tickets, selling popcorn). They eventually fall into a sexual relationship, but problems surface. Such affairs were highly unusual if not what-the-fuck-are-you-thinking? in working-class circles.
Colin Firth is a crusty theatre owner who exploits Colman sexually, casually, off and on. Anti-immigrant skinheads and an act of particular brutality figure into the narrative.
Things were a lot different in England and the U.S. in 1980, racially speaking. If you ask me the likelihood of such an affair pushes the limits of credibility, or certainly the 1980 norm. Honestly. I visited London in ’76 and ’80…such affairs just weren’t in the cards. Interracial, sure, but older white woman-younger black guy? There was certainly a lot of racism among brutish working-class types. Gangs of skinheads roaming the London Underground…I was there, I saw it, I felt it.
May I ask something? Why would a smart, good-looking dude like Ward be interested in an unstable white lady on the far side of 45? What about all those foxy 20something girls running around town? I don’t get it. If Colman was in her early 30s, maybe. (I was into women in their 30s during my early to mid 20s.)
However unstable and erratic, Colman’s character would have had to nurse a streak of serious self-destruction to engage in a May-December affair like this. But if the director-writer of a film depicting such an affair adopts an attitude of presentism, a Ward + Colman-type affair is well within the realm of possibility.
A totally woke movie in 2022 has to cover at least two of the three fundamentals — race, gender, sexuality — and if it’s a 1980 period film the old presentism thang figures in. Empire of Light doesn’t do gender, but it covers the other three, you bet. Or so it would seem. I won’t see it until Telluride.