With a glimpse into the issues and turbulent times of the 1980s, Sam Mendes paints a beautiful portrait of a romance between an older, mentally ill lady and a young, enthusiastic boy. Along with well-written characters, the movie unfolds gradually to let the viewers savor every dialogue and shot. The poignant story makes the most of the struggles and issues faced by people in that era. Set in a cinema hall with all its rustic charm, the movie showcases how a woman named Hilary, who suffers from Schizophrenia, takes the entire cinema by storm with her actions and breakdowns. The British romantic drama stays true to its British roots with the depiction of the country’s ideologies and concerns. Moreover, the stars cast in the composed roles are molded into their respective characters and stories beautifully.
The shots of the cinema overlooking the ocean present a sense of serenity and calm in the story. When in deep thought, the characters are seen sitting in front of the massive ocean. This makes the most of the filming location and helps us stay in tune with the ongoing emotions in the story. “Empire of Light” feels like an indie movie because of its character-driven plot and very subtle nods to a plethora of themes. Starting from a sort of forbidden romance between Hilary and Donald Ellis to Hilary’s affair with Stephen, even the facets of racism and immigration concerns are highlighted with a slight nuance. To understand the inner workings of the world of the movie, we have to look at the individual characters that drive the eventual narrative.
Starting with the protagonist, Hilary Small, who is a Schizophrenic patient with a deeply disturbing childhood. Her thoughts and her actions are not outright portrayed in the movie, but we get a sense of how she feels as Olivia Colman focuses her energy on the expression of her feelings more than anything else. Being an extremely skilled actress, she is able to exude life into an otherwise dull character. Hilary is lonely and awkward in most situations. Something akin to a mid-life crisis, her emotions often get out of control as she loses sight of her true motive in life. She works at the Empire Cinema as a Duty Manager and drones on in life with no passion or excitement. Another step down in life for her is her secret relationship with the owner of the cinema hall, Donald Ellis. Married and equally dull, Donald uses Hilary as a selfish outlet for his sexual desires. Their relationship is weirdly creepy, to say the least. Hilary feels used as her own desires are not met, nor does she feel heard in the equation. Furthermore, she feels deprived of any sort of pleasure in life. With a small social circle and no one to go home to, her life encompasses very few moments of delight, although what else can one expect from a small English town in the 1980s?
On closer analysis, we believe she envies the younger employees around her, who are so full of life and joy. Spunky music, hanging out with friends, and even laughing while at work seem alien to Hilary, which her co-workers thoroughly enjoy. She is the archetypal aloof woman who remains closed off to change or to incorporating a sense of amusement in life. The most pivotal aspect of her character is the childhood she has lived. A cheating father and a consequently horrible mother did not focus much on Hilary and her needs. She often felt suffocated and even thought of killing her own mother. All of this dysfunction has been passed down to her, and to this day, she bears the brunt of it. Moreover, thus began her hatred for men and everything they signify. Although she could not comprehend why she was loyal to her father, she grew up against patriarchy and how men felt superior enough to use women as mere objects. The ultimate tipping point comes at the premiere and toward the end of the movie. She breaks all rules and gets up on stage to speak her mind out. With lipstick on her teeth and a dress half undone, it shows how out of sorts she feels.
Another dysfunctional character in the movie is Donald Ellis. The owner of Empire Cinema considers himself above and beyond the realms of workers and employees. Despite that, he has no trouble demanding sex from Hilary whenever he desires. He expects her to comply every time he needs to scratch the metaphorical sexual itch. At a moment’s notice, he asks to see her in his office and asks her to give him a blowjob or masturbate for him. Donald is an arrogant manchild who does not know how to respect other people’s wishes. He cannot take “no” for an answer and will throw a tantrum if he does not get what he wants. While he claims to like Hilary and feel tenderness toward her, he shows no compassion for her and pays no attention to her desires. This ends up being another one of those relationships where men see a glimmer of attraction and hold on for dear life as their wives or partners refuse to provide them with what they want most, sexual pleasure.
The sole sparkle of light and energy on the screen is Michael Ward as Stephen Murray. His charisma and sheer delight in life take over the entire scene as we sit and watch him deliver a wonderful performance. In the dreary and otherwise murky world of the “Empire of Light,” Stephen manages to remain delightful and joyful. He even cheers up the people around him, which gives the plot an engaging angle. Moreover, Hilary looks out of her usual life routine and falls for Stephen because of his charming and enthusiastic attitude. They embark on a secret affair that starts with sex but ends up being more meaningful as they connect and understand each other. Their relationship works even though they both belong to very different worlds. While Hilary is a white, middle-aged woman, Stephen is a young black man. There is not a single point in their lives where their worlds converge. Despite this, they seem to make it work until Hilary’s sickness, and her fierce stance against men take over. She is dead set against letting men help her or letting them get the satisfaction of feeling superior to her. On the other hand, Stephen is an extremely sweet and understanding man. He knows the obstacles Hilary has faced and is willing to be with her through her illness and low points in life. However, Hilary does not let Stephen hold her hand. After multiple efforts, Stephen deems it necessary for himself to move on. Also, being a black man, he faces insults and racist remarks throughout the movie. Things get out of hand when a protest against immigrants and people of color breaks out in front of the cinema, and protestors beat the life out of Stephen. This heartbreaking scene presents the enormous intensity of the race and immigration problems in the country. The events of the movie take place 30 years in the past, but we still see those situations prevalent in the 21st century.
On the whole, “Empire of Light” is an amalgamation of a variety of facets that revolved around the lives of people in England in the 1980s. The core characters of the movie have their fair share of issues that they need to face and overcome in life. A brighter future lurks around the horizon of their lives, and it awaits a change in their attitude for the better. It also touches upon how movies and cinema feel like an escape for most people who prefer getting lost in the darkness of the halls to experience the movie on the big screen. The absence of darkness in the moving frames is analogous to the illusion of life that everyone creates by accumulating individual significant or minute moments that make them who they are.