Find Where Light in Darkness Lies (“Love’s Labour’s Lost”, William Shakespeare)

Film Review by Franco Ferrarini, gastroenterologist, and film reviewer
‘Empire of Light’, Sam Mendes, UK, 2022

Set in the early 80’s, Hilary (Olivia Colman) is a middle-aged woman working as a duty-manager at the “Empire”, a movie theatre in Margate, Kent. ‘’Find where light in darkness lies’’ is the caption from Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ engraved on the ‘Empire’ front. Hilary’s life is not a happy one: she lives alone, had a troubled relationship with her mother, submits to occasional sex encounters with her boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) and is probably affected by bipolar disorder. The darkness in her life is broken by two beams of light; the first, metaphorical, is the arrival of a new usher, Stephen (Micheal Ward), a black young man with whom she becomes friends at first, and later their relationship turns into a sexual one. Due to the age difference and their different backgrounds, their love story does not last long. Consequently, Hilary’s desperation worsens, and after a manic episode, during which she openly discloses her sexual encounters with Donald, she is admitted to a psychiatric unit for compulsory treatment. The second ray of light is a true one: after discharge from hospital, she returns to work at the Empire, where Norman the cinema projectionist (Toby Jones), and Stephen, both encourage her to explore the films showing at the cinema.  To alleviate her depression, Norman tells her to watch” Being there” (Hal Ashby, 1979) film in the empty theatre. As soon as the light beam of the projector dissipates the darkness of the cinema theatre, and the film begins, Hilary starts crying and laughing at the same time, empathizing with the film characters, and feeling emotionally released for the first time.

 

Several manifestations of psychological distress  are fully addressed in this film; in particular, the difficulty of tracing a line between extremes of mood and what is labelled as “mental disease”.

Forced admission to mental asylum units, as seen in Michel Foucault’s seminal work1 and “One flew over the cuckoo’ nest” (Miloš Forman, USA, 1975), was often not a cure but a mechanism to “sweep the dust under the rug” so as not to disturb the quiet life of the upper classes. It is likely that if Hilary was spared the childhood trauma due to her mother’s behaviour (she was jealous of Hilary’s relation with her father) and being used as a sexual object by her boss, her mental deterioration might have been prevented. Instead, she is prescribed Lithium and is locked up when she disturbs her neighbors and exposes Donald to his wife; forced admission becomes an option when danger of “harm to self and others” is clear and present. Moreover, the narration clearly hints at the role of art, specifically cinematic art, in the treatment of mental distress. The role of Cinematherapy in the treatment of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and its supportive role have been recently addressed.2,3 However, cinema’s benefit is not limited to disease states because every kind of art, be it visual, literary, or musical, is a powerful medium to relieve the tragic circumstances of social isolation and loneliness experienced by people like Hilary.

The film’s message around the fact of the inescapable reality that life must come to an end may cast a shadow even on the happiest life, thus art becomes a healing mechanism in psychologically stable individuals as well. Hilary hints at this theme when she publicly reads D.H. Auden’s “Death’s Echo”, a poem in which Death reminds us of the futility of life. The poem ends by the words “Dance, dance, dance till you drop”, a metaphor for turning to arts to make life more enjoyable.

Other issues are efficaciously addressed in the film. For example, Stephen experiences ugly racism when he is verbally and physically assaulted by ultranationalist bullies. This sub-plot reminds the viewer of similar societal attitudes to mentally ill people. Being different as in having a different colour or suffering mentally are not tolerated and even violently punished.

But nature’s life is cyclical and Stephen, after these violent experiences, fulfills his lifelong dream of studying architecture. Hilary alludes to life’s ups and downs at the film’s final scenes, while looking at the horizon, she cites a line from “The Trees”, a poem by Philip Larkin: Last year is dead, they [the trees] seem to say, begin afresh, afresh, afresh. Her quiet smile is a further reminder of the healing power of Art.

“Empire of light” is a remarkable film for several reasons from the director’s brilliant skill in his sensitive handling of mental health and challenging marginalization of ‘the other’ to the excellent performance of Olivia Colman and the wonderful cinematography by Roger Deakins (just one example: the picture-in-picture effect portraying Hilary and Stephen while watching the fireworks). The film is a must-see for its life-affirming message that Cinema, literature, and poetry are all sources of ‘finding one’s solace’.

 

References

[1] Foucault M. “Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason” 1961, New York, Pantheon Books.

[2] Sacilotto E et al. “Through the Looking Glass: a Scoping Review of Cinema and Video Therapy”. Front. Psychol. 2022; 12:732246. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.732246.

[3] Chieffo, DPR et al. “Medi-Cinema: A Pilot Study on Cinematherapy and Cancer as A New Psychological Approach on 30 Gynecological Oncological Patients”. Cancers 2022; 14, 3067. https:// doi.org/10.3390/cancers14133067.

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