Empire of Light tells a multilayered story about an English cinema in 1980 and the people who worked there. It’s a tangle of themes about mental illness, racism, and cinema. There are spoilers ahead.
The always brilliant Olivia Colman stars as Hilary in Empire of Light. Hilary works in the Empire Cinema, a faded movie palace on the coast of England. The movie begins with her opening up, switching on all the lights, making the place look splendid.
She lives alone. She’s on lithium, which she tells her doctor makes her feel numb.
The small group of employees at the cinema look out for each other. Her boss, the swine Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), expects a daily wank from her. She delivers without emotion.
Into this small world comes Stephan (Michael Ward), the new ticket taker.
Stephan is young, perfect, handsome, and kind. He’s like a jewel in Hilary’s eyes. She’s attracted to him. In spite of their age difference, he likes her. He’s kind to her. He’s attentive and willing to engage in sex with her.
She wants to feel the joy of having Stephan and she stops taking the lithium. She’s happy at first, but slowly falls apart without it. She’s been abused by many men before her boss at the cinema, which we learn as she opens up.
Stephen deals with overt racism from the skinheads roaming the streets. A gang of them break into the theater and beat him as Hilary looks on helplessly.
In addition to the love story, the mental illness story, and the racism story, there’s also a through line about the glory days of cinema. The projectionist, Norman (Toby Jones), is the keeper of the ode to cinema. He’s also the group’s philosopher – mostly the philosophy of illusion and escape with films.
Hilary flames out in the most spectacular way on the night the cinema is full of famous guests for the grand opening of Chariots of Fire. She’s sent to the mental hospital.
When Hilary is back on her meds and at home again, she learns Stephen has a new girlfriend, Ruby (Crystal Clarke) and he’s been accepted in the architecture program at the university in Bristol. They have a farewell scene that isn’t so much sad as loving.
There was a lot going on in Empire of Light, but I thought it worked. It helped that the movie was visually gorgeous and the music was excellent – you can’t miss with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I would have liked more character development for Stephen and the underused Tanya Moodie who played his mother. But the character who mattered was Hilary.
The film was written and directed by Sam Mendes. It is his first attempt at writing and his first film with a female lead character. Putting Olivia Colman in the film was a smart choice for his freshman effort with a female lead, because she did every one of her character’s incarnations brilliantly.
The film is now streaming on HBO Max.