“Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.” So says Martin Scorsese – and so says Sam Mendes in his enchanting new movie, Empire of Light (general release), the first that he has both directed and written.
Set in an unnamed coastal town in 1980-81 – quickly identifiable as Margate, beautifully captured in the cinematography of Roger Deakins – the film 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.
And this is indeed a very different time: the early years of Thatcherism, in which the pulsing modernity of late 20th-century Britain has yet to stir and imperial nostalgia still haunts the seaside town. The movie 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 feature films made by digital streaming services and multiple screens simultaneously showing the latest Avatar were still decades in the future.
From the opening shots, there are echoes of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) in the film’s plea – best expressed by projectionist Toby Norman (Toby Jones) – for 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. 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 movie.
The sheer ordinariness of the Empire’s staff has been criticised by some reviewers as a missed opportunity for expressive or demonstrative characterisation; but, to the contrary, it is to Mendes’s credit that he does not fill his cinema with personalities that conspicuously belong in a movie plot rather than in the ticket booth or at the confectionery kiosk.
Specials fan Janine (Hannah Onslow), junior manager Neil (Tom Brooke), and boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) are unremarkable people who happen to act as gatekeepers to the escapist wonders of the movies. They trade tales of the occasional disruptions to their humdrum work routine – the discovery, for example, of a dead body during clean-up, an audience member having suffered a heart attack during Smokey and the Bandit (“took three people to move him”).
Ellis, in particular, is a case study in tawdry officialdom, conducting an affair of sorts with duty manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) in snatched moments in his office. His cringe-making excitement when he learns that the Empire has been selected to host the regional premiere of Chariots of Fire (1981) enables us to see Firth at the very top of his game (which is saying something).
But the film belongs to Colman, who seems incapable of delivering anything other than a compelling performance. By stages, she reveals Hilary to be a profoundly damaged person, dosed with lithium to minimise the symptoms of her bipolar condition, painfully isolated, uninterested in film and – though she resists the prospect – fully aware that she is more likely than not to be heading back to a psychiatric institution.
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 is his boss, which complicates matters. And – this being the early 1980s – their relationship is overshadowed by the explicit and sometimes violent racism that is woven into the tensions of the times.
Hilary 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. She presents herself as indifferent to film but is – it becomes clear – deeply immersed in poetry, able to quote from Tennyson’s In Memoriam and to select for Stephen lines from Larkin that are (uncharacteristically) full of hope. In due course, an emotional encounter with Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) dramatically reconfigures her own relationship with the movies.
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:
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.
Lydia incarnates the uncompromising virtuoso for whom the pitiless exercise of power over those around her is simply an aspect of her vocation. According to her wife Sharon (Nina Hoss), who is also the Philharmonic’s first violinist, her relationship with their young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic) is the only one in her life that is not transactional.
She pursues a young Russian cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), and is haunted by the suicide of Krista Taylor, a former protégée, blackballed from conducting jobs after Lydia was alleged to have slept with her. When a “Bipoc pangender” Julliard student objects to Bach on ideological grounds, her response is devastating.
There is a cinematic chilliness to Tár that puts one in mind of Tarkovsky. And as the story progresses, the border between reality and hallucination starts – apparently – to blur. Oscillating between tyrannous genius and psychological collapse, Blanchett is certainly due an eighth Oscar nomination and perhaps a third golden statuette (she picked up a fourth Golden Globe on Tuesday). I doubt many movies in 2023 will be more compelling.
Servant, Season Four (Apple+, 13 January)
Since its launch in 2019, Servant – created by Tony Basgallop, with M. Night Shyamalan as executive producer – has been one of the finest dramas produced by Apple+. It has also pulled off one of the hardest objectives a series, especially one belonging to the psychological horror genre, can set itself: which is to forswear the easy option of jump scares and creepy twists and to embrace instead the slow burn of character development and lurking menace.
As the fourth season begins, Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) returns from hospital after a serious fall, to find her chef husband Sean (Toby Kebbel) immersed in his TV series Gourmet Gauntlet, their seriously weird nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) all but running the house and her brother Julian (Rupert Grint) still sexually in thrall to the younger woman.
Two key questions have yet to be answered in this final season: what really happened to Jericho, their infant son who apparently died before the timeline covered by the series and yet has somehow returned to life (or been replaced by another child)? And what is the truth about the Church of the Lesser Saints, the cult from which Leanne escaped? All will be revealed – probably.
Hunters, Season Two (Prime Video, 13 January)
Spoilers ahead (stop reading if you haven’t seen Season One). Hunters, created by David Weil, was one of the prestige television success stories of in 2020, a quirky, far-fetched saga of Nazi killers in the 1970s, led by concentration camp survivor Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino) – who turned out, in the final episode, to be a Nazi doctor using the stolen identity of the real (deceased) Meyer in order to escape the Soviets.
It was also revealed, in case you were wondering, that Hitler was still alive and living in Argentina with Eva Braun. And that, one assumed, was that.
Here, however, comes an unexpected second season. Al Pacino’s character – apparently killed at the end of Season One – is somehow still around. And the team of hunters reassembles, led by Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) and disillusioned FBI agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton), determined to track down the fugitive führer and his wife and thwart their plans for a Fourth Reich.
More camp even than the Hitler-clone cult classic, The Boys from Brazil (1978), Hunters is entertaining hokum, anchored by the pantomime villainy of Pacino and the clever use of tropes from superhero movies to give action and pace to its eight-episode arc.
The Shards – Bret Easton Ellis (Swift Press, 17 January)
Thirteen years ago, I met Bret Easton Ellis at Mark’s Club in Mayfair at a party to celebrate the publication of his previous novel, Imperial Bedrooms. The author was as pleasingly diffident and Warhol-baffled by all the fuss as one could have hoped.
As I recall, I burbled on at him (poor man) about the impact that his debut novel Less than Zero (1985) – to which Imperial Bedrooms was a brutal, arch and hilarious sequel – had had upon me. Ellis was only 21 when that mesmerising account of nihilistic, materialistic college kids in Los Angeles was published. Now, aged 58, he has returned to the scene of his first great literary coup in a fascinating way.
Originally serialised as an audiobook on his excellent podcast, The Shards is the auto-fictional account of a “Bret Ellis”, a 17-year-old pupil at the exclusive Buckley College, between 8 September and 7 November 1981. He lives on Mulholland Drive, dresses in preppy designer gear, mediates his experience through movies and music, is promiscuously bisexual, drives a Mercedes 450 SL and subsists on Quaaludes, cocaine and Valium. Like the characters in Less Than Zero, he celebrates “numbness as a feeling, numbness as a motivation, numbness as the reason to exist, numbness as ecstasy”. Then – because this novel is steeped in the lore of true crime – his desensitised world is at least partially disrupted by the arrival of a pupil, Robert Mallory, whom Bret suspects of dark deeds, and by the murder spree of a serial killer nicknamed the “Trawler”.
As in all of Ellis’s novels – of which this is the sixth – there is a collision between indifference and morality. “What did it matter, what did anything matter, nothing mattered,” Bret thinks as he receives oral sex from his girlfriend Debbie, while fantasising about a male lover. 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.
Which is not to say that we can take on trust what he says about anything: as always with Ellis, “Bret” is an unreliable narrator, who divides himself into “the writer” and what he describes cryptically as “the tangible participant”. Thanks to the novelist’s artistry, this makes for a compelling, unsettling voice – which is why, remarkably, the 600 pages skip by. What, I wonder, will today’s younger readers make of the former enfant terrible who thrilled another generation?
The Written World and the Unwritten World: Collected Non-fiction – Italo Calvino (Penguin Modern Classics)
“I am not among those who believe that human intelligence is about to die, killed by television. There has always been a culture industry, containing the danger of a general decline of intelligence, but something new and positive always emerges from it.” So wrote Italo Calvino in 1959.
Often misrepresented as a cultural stick in the mud, the great Italian essayist and novelist, who died in 1985, was in truth an omnivorous consumer of new genres, fictional styles and schools of thought. This collection of non-fiction pieces, first published between 1952 and posthumously in 1995, covers themes ranging from holiday reading, the future of the novel and translation, to Arthurian legend, José Ortega y Gasset and cannibalism. The essay on Montezuma and Cortés is especially memorable: a vivid exploration of the complex relationship between the conqueror and the conquered.
Calvino was deadly serious about “the written world” and its limitless possibilities. But he also relished irony and mischief. “I love Jane Austen,” he declared, “because I never read her but I’m glad she exists.”
The Wife of Bath: A Biography – Marion Turner (Princeton University Press, 17 January)
Four years after her acclaimed Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner – appointed J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at Oxford in October – returns with this superb exploration of the most memorable character in The Canterbury Tales, her significance in the literature and society of late medieval England, and her huge impact upon subsequent culture.
Five times married, Alyson or Alys is not an archetype but a fully developed fictional personality, whose prologue is twice as long as her tale: she is a gap-toothed clothmaker who ages, has a sex life, endures the hectoring of her husband , the clerk Jankyn, and resists misogyny by any means at her disposal. “Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?” she asks rhetorically, referring to one of Aesop’s fables: her point being that women must challenge their social and personal definition by men.
Most striking is the enduring impact of Alyson in the past six centuries – visible in the writing of (amongst many others) Shakespeare, Voltaire and Joyce, whose Molly Bloom is a reimagining of the Wife of Bath. As Turner shows, her character has also directly influenced modern Black women writers, including Jean “Binta” Breeze, Patience Agbabi and Zadie Smith, whose 2021 play, The Wife of Willesden is analysed in depth. A book rich in scholarship that has plenty to offer the general reader, too.
Nothing to Lose – Everything But the Girl
Synths, drum machines, then the unmistakable voice of Tracey Thorn: “I need a thicker skin / This pain keeps getting in / Tell me what to do / Because I’ve always listened to you.” Yes, the mighty Everything But the Girl – husband and wife duo Thorn and Ben Watt – are back, 24 years since their last album Temperamental.
‘Nothing to Lose’ is a tremendous dance track, full, as one would expect, of yearning and emotional need, and the first single to be released from the forthcoming album Fuse (21 April). “We wanted to come back with something modern-sounding,” Watt told the NME. “We’re not out there on the heritage trail doing ‘best of’ tours or playing arenas. We just wanted to make a piece of work that would sound great now in 2023. That was the driver.”
During their absence from the musical scene, Thorn has made a name for herself as a writer, most recently with My Rock’n’Roll Friend (2021) – do check out Liz Moseley’s terrific ThinkIn with her here. One hopes there are plenty more books to come. Meanwhile, it is wonderful to have EBTG back where they belong.
12 – Ryuichi Sakamoto (17 January)
In January 2021, the great Japanese composer, pianist and producer Ryuichi Sakamoto announced the sad news that his cancer had returned. “From now on, I will be living alongside cancer,” he said. “But I am hoping to make music for a little while longer.”
This collection, his first non-soundtrack solo album since the magnificent async (2017), is being released on his 71st birthday, and assembles a series of recordings made on 12 particular days between March 2021 and March 2022; principally performed on synthesiser and piano (each track is named after the date in question – hence “20210310” refers to 10 March 2021).
There are gaps of several months between some of the recordings, reflecting the dips in Sakamoto’s energy levels and the periods when he was receiving treatment. This unpredictable pattern, as he explains here, has also altered the way in which he produces streamed performances.
The album is like a musical journal and embraces the sublimely mournful aesthetic that became familiar all over the world after the soundtrack he composed for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) – in which he also co-starred with David Bowie and Tom Conti. But there are also excursions into abstraction and jazz-influenced composition. As challenging as Sakamoto’s illness has clearly been – how could it be otherwise? – his creative defiance is inspiring; and gives to 12 a spirit of indomitable hope.
Phosphorescent – Gabrielle Aplin
In her fourth album, the 30-year-old indie-folk artist shows how far she has come since the unexpected sensation of her version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” for the 2012 John Lewis Christmas ad.
Produced by Mike Spencer, Phosphorescent lifts Aplin squarely into the pop arena, with catchy tracks such as ‘Take It Easy’, ‘Never Be The Same’, and ‘Don’t Say’. But the essence of her music remains a mellifluous balladry, sustained by a truly exceptional voice: the impact of songs like ‘Skylight’ (“We don’t need to rush this feeling, feeling / Trying is a waste of time / We don’t need to rush, just breathe out, breathe in”) and ‘I Wish I Didnt Press Send’ (“But now it’s late, I’m awake, and I’ve broken my rule / I swear it was that drink that had me messaging you / I’ve gone and done the thing I said I wouldn’t do”) depends entirely upon the nuance, emotion and power of Aplin’s vocal delivery.
A superb live performer, she is appearing tonight at St George’s Bristol. Roll on further UK tour dates in 2023.
… and finally: RIP Jeff Beck (24 June, 1944-10 January, 2023)
There is a memorable scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), in which the photographer played by David Hemmings stumbles into a club where the Yardbirds are playing – with both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar (the latter having replaced Eric Clapton in the band’s line-up). Beck is annoyed by the quality of the sound system and smashes up his guitar. Hemmings is left on the pavement, clutching what is left of the instrument’s shattered neck.
The sequence is a tableau of Swinging Sixties London: Page went on, of course, to lead Led Zeppelin to global greatness, while the departed Clapton continued his pursuit of the blues and rock in Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos.
Beck, who died aged 78 on Tuesday of bacterial meningitis, was much more of an explorer, determined to see where his virtuosity would lead him. Though his biggest solo hit was the wedding dancefloor-filler ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining’ (1967), it was as an endlessly creative collaborator that he made his mark: with Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, George Martin, Nile Rogers and, most recently, Johnny Depp, with whom he recorded the album 18 last year.
Never confined by his roots as a Sixties blues man, Beck relished his adventures in jazz fusion, techno and ambient music, and – though he rarely came close to the later commercial success of Page and Clapton – he painted on a much broader canvas. Entirely true to himself, he was one of the most important postwar guitarists and a cultural figure of huge and enduring significance.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios, Miramax, Faces International Films, MOMA/Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society, Apple TV+, Prime Video, Florian Hoffmeister/Focus Features, Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images