Producers: Pippa Harris and Sam Mendes   Director: Sam Mendes   Screenplay: Sam Mendes   Cast: Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Tom Brooke, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tanya Moodie, Hannah Onslow, Crystal Clarke, Monica Dolan, Sara Stewart, Ron Cook and Justin Edwards   Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C+

The Empire cinema in Margate—a seaside town on the Kentish coast of England—during the early 1980s is the focal point of Sam Mendes’ film.  The art deco palace, just across from the beach, might be somewhat rundown, but it remains a refuge for customers, who enter it leaving their outside lives behind to revel in the dream world of films as varied as “The Blues Brothers” and “Chariots of Fire.”  But it’s also a refuge of sorts for its staff, the major characters here—though, as events would show, an unreliable one.

That’s especially true for its manager Hilary Small (Olivia Colman), a punctilious woman whose air of precision masks her deep insecurity.  She lives a solitary life, and her occasional visits to a local dance club are effortful responses to her therapist’s suggestion that she get out and meet people.  She’s also on a regular lithium regimen, though it’s clear that she’d rather not be.  She’s been hospitalized before for mental problems, and she’s clearly nervous that they might recur (as is her assistant manager, sensitive Neil, played by Tom Brooke).

Hilary’s precarious situation isn’t improved by the fact that Ellis (Colin Firth), the arrogant owner of the theatre, periodically summons her into his office, purportedly for business discussions but actually because he’s using her to fulfill his sexual needs.  That explains why when Ellis and his wife (Sara Stewart) come into a restaurant where Hilary is sitting alone at a corner table, she quietly leaves, embarrassed. 

The arrival of a new addition to the theatre’s team of ushers changes matters.  Stephen (Micheal Ward) is an engaging young black man whom Hilary rebukes at one point for mocking a patron, but comes to regard with affection when she shows him the abandoned ballroom on the building’s upper floor.  They find that one of the pigeons that congregate there has a broken wing, and Stephen’s bandaging of the bird impresses her; together they’ll keep watch until it’s able to fly to freedom again. 

The symbolism of that little operation for what happens between them is rather heavy-handed as they enter into a romantic relationship that has a salutary effect on her.  But her illness proves intractable, as an angry explosion that occurs even during their time together makes clear.

Their relationship also has to contend with the racism Stephen faces at a time when economic distress and crude nativism have led to acts of intimidation and violence.  The reality is expressed in ways both subtle—Stephen withdrawing his hand from Hilary’s shoulder when a fellow passenger on a bus observes them quizzically, his being berated by a nasty moviegoer (Ron Cook) for prohibiting him from bringing his fish and chips into the theatre, his applications to architecture school getting casual rejection—and not, as when he’s accosted by skinheads on the street.  But Mendes takes things to extremes when a bunch of rowdy demonstrators attack the Empire, breaking windows and sending the staff fleeing in fear. 

That scene is unfortunately characteristic of the last act of the film, in which Mendes opts for big moments that come across as overblown, most notably Hilary’s decision to inject herself, melodramatically, into the “regional gala premiere” of “Chariots of Fire” that Ellis has turned into an event designed to reinvigorate his theatre.  The sequence simply doesn’t play as catharsis, though one can understand its purpose—to act as an exclamation point to Hilary’s final rejection of her boss’ abuse, while also marking her renewed descent into a state that will lead to another bout with institutionalization. 

That’s juxtaposed with another sequence in which Hilary finally asks Norman (Toby Jones), the “keeper of the flame,” as it were, in the immaculate old-fashioned projection booth where celluloid magic runs through the perfectly maintained machines, to screen a film for her.  (She admits that she’s never watched a movie there before.)  So she sits enthralled as “Being There” unspools and Peter Sellers seems to walk on water.  Presumably that title is meant to do many things—point up Hilary’s solitary existence (she’s alone in the auditorium), as well as the otherness she shares both with Stephen and with Chance the Gardener.  But it’s also designed to emphasize the magic of cinema, which can take us beyond ourselves.

Then there are the scenes in which Hilary says farewell to Stephen, who’s finally off to college, or Stephen encounters her some time later, after her release from the hospital, arm-in-arm with a lovely girlfriend (Crystal Clarke); the moment is strained.

There are many strong elements here.  Mark Tidesley’s production design, which concentrates on the Margate beachside but especially the old dream palace that was refurbished for the film, its red velvet seats, burnished wood framing and metal accessories restored to something like their former glory, and Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are captured in rich, glossy images by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, emulating the look of films of the past.  The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds to the mood of an age long past while also complementing the more darkly dramatic moments.

Among the actors, Ward is impressive as Stephen though his role is basically reactive, and the ever-reliable Jones is gently steadfast as, so to speak, the voice of the medium, making even Mendes’ poetic flights regarding the technology Norman oversees bearable.  All the supporting cast is excellent, with Hannah Onslow and Tanya Moodie standing out as the Empire’s punkish usher and Stephen’s mother, respectively, though those playing nameless bigoted thugs are just conventionally nasty. The standout, though, is undoubtedly Colman, who adds to her gallery of sharply-etched performances with a gripping one of a woman on the edge desperately trying to retain her balance in the face of deep mental disturbance. 

It is, in fact, as a portrait of a person plagued with mental illness that the film is most effective. Mendes’ attempt to amplify it with a panoply of climaxes toward the close muddies the waters rather than expanding the impact, and even Lee Smith’s supple editing can’t conceal the debilitating structural weakness.