Director Sir Sam Mendes said “social awkwardness” plays a big part in the difficulties people have discussing mental health, as he launched his latest film in Kent.

Empire Of Light is set in a dilapidated cinema in a 1980s coastal town and is billed as both a love letter to cinema and a love story between Olivia Colman’s Hilary and Micheal Ward’s Stephen.

The film also discusses mental health – Hilary has a mental illness and is based loosely on Sir Sam’s mother – and also race, as Ward’s character faces racial prejudice throughout the film.

Speaking on Sunday at the film’s premiere at the Dreamland amusement park in Margate, Kent, Sir Sam said: “I had stories I wanted to tell from my own childhood; for me the 80s are a really vibrant and resonant time to write about.

Empire of Light gala screening

Sam Mendes attending the gala screening of the Empire of Light at Carlton Cinema in Margate (Ian West/PA)

“I wrote it during lockdown and there was a huge upsurge in mental health issues as people were trapped in their homes and held in that vice-like grip.

“I also think we haven’t found a very good way of expressing mental health issues in this country. It’s often the case if someone comes out of hospital having gone in for an illness, you ask how they are, but if they come out of a mental hospital they tend not to ask.

“It’s a very difficult thing to talk about and it tends to get brushed under the carpet, with social awkwardness being the norm.

“Race is an ongoing debate that we have to find a way to move forward in, it’s something that’s just as relevant today as it was in the 80s.”

Colman said it was a big responsibility to take on a character inspired by Sir Sam’s mother.

She said of her role as Hilary: “It was quite nerve wracking when you know it means so much to Sam, and he saw it at such close quarters in such formative years, so the responsibility is quite great but then Sam does make it a really nurturing and safe space.

“He tells jokes all day, really bad ones, but it means you can make a mistake and it’s OK, and he guided us and made it all OK.”

– Empire Of Light starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth and Toby Jones is released in cinemas on Monday.

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