Sam Mendes draws on his mother’s struggle with mental illness in new film ‘Empire of Light’

Michael Ward as Stephen & Olivia Coleman as Hilary, sharing a seat on a bus, a clip form the film 'Empire of Light'.

Sam Mendes’ first solo-scripted film, ‘Empire of Light’, is set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, amongst the backdrop of the racial tensions and political unrest under Margaret Thatcher’s tenure.

It tells the story of an unlikely romance between a White middle-aged theatre manager Hilary and a dashing young Black ticket checker, Stephen, who in spite of their age difference, make an immediate connection.

The pair begin to date in secret, seemingly finding a sense of belonging through their individual traumas, however Stephen is unaware that Hilary is struggling with a mental health illness, for which she takes lithium (a diagnosis is never named, but she experiences episodes of mania) and was recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital.

The cast includes Oscar winning actress Olivia Colman as Hilary and BAFTA Rising Star winner Micheal Ward as Stephen, with a supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Tanya Moodie.

The film has several intertwining themes which include race, and mental health, with the latter being the most personal for the award winning director, who recently revealed that he grew up with a mother who was struggling with a mental illness.

He said: “I’m an only child. My mother brought me up on her own and she was struggling with mental health throughout my childhood and beyond, and I felt the kind of heroism of someone who’s holding herself together just above the surface the whole time. It was memories that I’ve lived with and wanted to try and find a way to tell for a long time. And I just wanted to find a way of addressing, I suppose the defining thing in my life as a child”

Although the film isn’t autobiographical, Mendes says that Olivia’s character is based loosely on his own mother and some scenes are true to his experiences growing up, whilst watching his mother’s mental health decline. With the film, he was keen to show the different ways in which how mental illness presents itself in individuals.

He said: Olivia Colman’s performance is I think an extraordinary rendition of watching someone disintegrate because of schizophrenia or bipolar…People who think ‘well, she’s on a couple of antidepressants. What’s the big deal?’, and I think that mirrors exactly what happens in society, between the people who really take it seriously as an epidemic, which it is, and those who don’t…Some people have an idea of depression, for example, of someone just being quiet and sitting in a corner, dressed in black. I’ve lost count of the number of people who describe somebody who’s taken their life and said, ‘He looked fine to me. He was laughing the previous day’, and you’re like, you don’t get it. It’s absolutely invisible on the surface, and sometimes they appear more healthy, more articulate than you’ve ever seen them before. This is why I was drawn to this way of expressing it, through drama”

The film was written during lockdown in 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, where many conversations were taking place around race, racism, and racial violence.

With this at the forefront of his mind, Mendes was keen to ensure that the race and socio-political issues of the time were also reflected in the film (with the inclusion of references to the Brixton riots and New Cross fire), a time of high racial tension and violence which many would argue is in some ways still as prevalent in society today.

He said: “I had all these memories from my teenager years growing up in the early eighties. The music, the movies, the times that my political opinions were formed, the Thatcher years of high unemployment, terrible racial politics, riots, what have you. All of that went into the mix and I felt it rummaging around the attic of my mind a little bit and it coalesced into two stories, one that is internal, which is her’s, and one that’s external, which is his, and they collide. I wanted to be able to tell both of them in parallel, and I hope I do”

Despite covering several themes, at the very heart of the film is the subject of mental illness, a condition Mendes says too many people suffer with and often in silence. He hopes the film will allow others to open up and talk more about their metal health.

He said: “There as a counterpoint to the centre of the film, which is about mental illness, fundamentally, at its roots. I suppose, over the years, I realised how little people discuss, or are able to discuss, issues of mental health, because of how it’s still stigmatised and brushed under the carpet. I started writing…and then this thing bubbled up really…I think for a number of reasons…And it has been a fascinating journey. I feel I have learned a lot, even in the last couple of weeks, of just being able to talk about it openly”

‘Empire Of Light’ is released in cinemas in the UK from 9th January.

Watch the trailer here:


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