by Geoffrey Churchman

This film has enough big names in front of and behind the camera and a setting that should appeal to cineastes and those into the history of England during the Thatcher years; specifically the early stage of them, here in the north facing seaside town of Margate in Kent. The period for the action is late 1980 and 1981.

All the main characters work in a seaside cinema called the Empire (the actual cinema in Margate used for the movie named Dreamland was opened in 1923 and closed for good in 2007 — but it still stands, although empty, because as a listed building it cannot be demolished without parliamentary approval.) This was about the time that cinemas were to take another big hit like they did in the 1960s because of the advent of home video and movie rental shops. Combined with the economic ‘cold turkey’ of the Thatcher government away from the substantially government controlled and owned economy to a free market one, it was a dismal time for the industry.

The owner, Donald played by Colin Firth, however, is optimistic and sees the major new British film Chariots of Fire as the opportunity for a revival. The main auditorium (there were 4 at one time, now down to 2) looks very nice internally, with a lot of art deco styling, and cinematographer Roger Deakins got an Oscar nomination for his work.

It’s clear early in the movie that the manageress, Hilary played by Olivia Coleman, has mental health issues and the history gets presented in glimpses which is one of the components of the storyline by acclaimed Director and Screenwriter Sam Mendes.

Another component is the racial tensions of the era with the activities of the fiercely anti-immigrant National Front. An African-Briton, Stephen (played by Michael Ward), is hired as an employee but despite being suave and smartly dressed, still gets taunts on the street by NF supporters. That sort of thing did happen, but a later scene during a motor-scooter led NF rally through the town in which a group of hoodlums smash through the locked front doors and beat him up in front of the staff stretches credulity, like something out of NZ Professor Spoonley’s imagination. The length of the resulting hospital stay — weeks rather than days — also seems excessive.

Needless to say as part of the script, Hilary separately gets intimate with both Donald and Stephen, although the former has a wife and the latter gets a girlfriend close to his age. Later when Hilary is absent from work for 3 days, Stephen pays a visit, shortly before Social Services do along with cops in cars with flashing blue lights. Hilary doesn’t open up so the cops burst down the doors. This is made an amusing scene as the Social Servicewoman then asks politely “may I come in?”

Filling out these themes are brief portraits of (then) technical movie projection, sales of confectionary and the ban on external food (neither long distance buses nor cinemas like the consumption of hot food because of the wafting smell) and the eccentricities of some of the patrons.

All the ingredients for a successful movie are there, but it doesn’t quite gel together. Perhaps too much time is spent on the interpersonal relationships, making it drag. The aspect of how did the cinema fare (obviously the real one lasted for a while) could have been dwelt on more.

Despite the script problems it’s a movie worth seeing.

Empire of Light (115 minutes) is screening at the Shoreline.