My interest in this film was sparked by at least four factors: first it was filmed in the Kent town of Margate; second, it has been praised for the retro scene-setting; third, Olivia Colman plays the star role; and finally, it has a challenging plot that features racism and also bi-polar mental illness.
Margate residents were doubtless intrigued and delighted to have such a film made in their town. Although this may involve streets being blocked off for filming, it does bring bustle and business to a town. The scene of New Year fireworks over the sea gave the residents a spectacular free firework display, while the parade of motorbikes was also awesome.
Welcome to 1981
At the centre of the story is the iconic Dreamland cinema on the sea-front, itself a notable architectural landmark of cinematographic history, built in 1923. It nearly succumbed to changing film economics (from cinema projection reels to LCD via networks) in 2007. There was even a proposal to demolish it and use the plot for residential development. With much effort by local campaigners, it has been preserved and restored.
To use it as a film set for a story set in 1981, some tweaks were needed to the interior. It is a truly impressive building, especially the top floor with fine views of the sea. It certainly makes me want to visit it. They have renamed the building “Empire” in preparation for the launch of this film. I wonder if they are yet offering tours of that top floor?
I was very impressed by the effort and expense put into making this film a faithful reproduction of 1981 tastes and décor. Even the cars flashing past the glass doors in the background were from the 1980s. The clothes for women were of woollen overcoats (no quilted polyester), and rayon scarves around the neck, tights (not leggings) and knee length hems, and no obese women in sight!
The home décor was right too – lampshades galore, patterned wallpaper, green bath, fashionable warm brown curtains etc. The props department must have had such fun searching all these period items! For those of us of a certain age, it is worth going to see this film just to bathe in nostalgia and to be reminded of how material culture moves on.
The manager and the rookie
Olivia Colman’s role is that of cinema duty manager, Hilary. The plot moves rather slowly at first, as the scene is set with the regular routines of opening and closing the cinema, and her interactions with the other staff, who include a handsome young Black man, Stephen (acted by Micheal Ward) who joins the staff as a newbie.
Through the incidents with Stephen, the plot provides scenes of racial antipathy in the Kent of 1981. The most frightening is a parade of flag-waving skinheads on motorbikes which culminates in some smashing their way into the cinema foyer and attacking Stephen so badly that he is hospitalised.
I was not in Kent in 1981 so cannot judge the plausibility of such an incident. But I do think such a scenario is worth showing on a large screen as a possible outcome of racial attitudes that result in attempts to muster people into a group to do something about it, in other words incitement to hatred such as has been in the news with regard to the migrants arriving on Kent beaches.
Hilary and Stephen get to kissing, and then going to the beach by bus together. There is the impression that this is a daring cross-racial coupling. But none of the critics have pointed out that social unease about this might be because of the obvious age-difference: Hilary is old enough to be Stephen’s mother (the actress is nearly 50).
No matter how much it is now politically correct to disapprove of ageism, many a viewer might be uneasy about this age difference. It is an under-discussed type of liaison that deserves further exploration both in novels and on screen. The film presents the relationship as tender and beneficial to both parties. And Stephen’s mother approves of it. But the safeguard is added to the plot of a young Black girl, Ruby, who will probably become the more suitable partner of Stephen.
Ups and downs
Hilary suffers from the mental disorder of bi-polar disease: she has recently emerged from a residential mental institution, and she has to take lithium daily. This is a very sympathetic portrayal of a bi-polar sufferer, which Olivia Colman achieves with her beautiful smile, and sensitive interaction with others in that small work team that keep the cinema running.
But behind the scenes she is complying with the boss who requires her sexual services, and there are hints that she was abused as a child. Bi-polar illness, which 1 in 100 people may face at least once in their lives, deserves more exploration in film, and Olivia Colman deserves praise for handling the role so sensitively.
Kindness in Kent
There is also a cameo role for a Kent social worker who, with the police, comes to take Hilary to hospital. She was both professional and kind. One hopes that this matches reality and that cuts to so many public services have not resulted in less humane treatment of those who need mental admission to a Kent hospital.
In spite of this film not receiving top ratings by the critics, it is worth going to see not only for the 1980s nostalgia but also because it is a courageous attempt to explore difficult topics.
You can view the film from today, 13 January for seven days at Cineworld, Ashford and Dover.
It is also on view at Odeon cinemas in Beckenham, Chatham, Epsom, Guildford, Kingston, Maidstone, Orpington and Tunbridge Wells.