‘Empire Of Light’ Characters: Hilary Small, Stephen, And Norman, Explained – What Is It Trying To Tell Us?

In Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” we see the importance of art in one’s life. It explores dark themes of mental illness and racism through the lens of art. For many of us, the biggest flaw in “Empire Of Light” is its pacing; where in some parts, it feels like a burden to continue further, but in others, it skips through the themes with no intensity, making it feel like the film is almost superficially attached to its own grand ideas. Olivia Colman is, as per usual, excellent in this role and carries the film alongside the young Michael Ward. There is a lot to enjoy about this film, including its score, the 80s cinema set-up (everything looks gorgeous), and the dialogue. Still, it lacks cohesiveness, seemingly skimming over the characters that it is most driven by. It is true we all find solace in art, an escape from reality; “movie magic” is still alive, but in “Empire of the Light,” the darkness shines brighter than the light. With all of that said, though, let’s try and break down the characters of this film to make some sense of it all.


Spoilers Ahead

Hilary Small: Freedom From Isolation

Hilary is a single woman, living on her own and working at the “Empire” Cinema, somewhere on the south coast of England. Hilary is an unreliable protagonist. We know Hilary takes lithium, which is a drug used to treat mood disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. When she meets with the doctor in the beginning, she tells him the drug is making her numb. He tells her that if she manages to “keep in good company,” she will be able to feel more alive. Hilary works at the cinema but has never seen a film. She is in an abusive sexual relationship with her manager because of her recurring mental illness and vulnerability but she is also lonely, following routines and living a mundane life. When Stephen, a new employee, joins the Empire, Hilary begins to like the young man because of his caring treatment of her. Hilary has experienced only negativity from the men in her life, the manager and her father (as we learn later on in the film), so when Stephen shows her his caring nature by treating the pigeon with a broken wing on the roof, she’s mesmerized by his kindness. Both people have internal and external dilemmas, but together they manage to escape them. When Hilary begins a relationship with Stephen, she stops feeling numb. It is true that Stephen is good for her, but when she stops taking the lithium, things begin to spiral downward. She begins to isolate herself and drift from Stephen.


Both Stephen and Hilary were looked down upon in the society they lived in. Stephen because of his race, and Hilary because of her mental illness and isolation. Later when she is sent away to get treatment and returns afresh, she’s not with Stephen anymore and is back to being ‘numb.’ Then, when Stephen is attacked by the racist protestors, she’s burdened by the thought of not being able to do anything for him. She’s reluctant to visit him, but Norman manages to convince her to go see him by telling her about his lost son. Norman coaxes Hilary to have no regrets and go see Stephen and stop running away. Until then, Hilary’s escape was poetry. She quotes many poems over the course of the film, including “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” and “The Trees.” After she visits Stephen, she rushes back to the cinema and asks Norman to show her any film of his choice. He shows her the satirical comedy “Being There,” with the famous dialogue, “Life is a state of mind.” Hilary is terribly moved by this film because these words are a reflection of her life. She needs to take control of it because life is what you make of it. In the end, when Stephen leaves to go to college, Hilary is able to accept that she will miss him, and she’s also understood herself well enough to manage on her own.

Stephen: Escape From Reality

Stephen is clearly a warm-hearted man. He respects Hillary and doesn’t mistreat her even after knowing about her mental illness. Hilary has hurt his feelings many times, but he continues to remain understanding of her situation. Stephen loves the movies, sneaking into the projection room to learn about the works from Norman. He uses cinema as an escape from the harsh truth of it all. But Stephen never forgets the truth; he enjoys watching films and working at the cinema, but he also knows what’s going on around him. Stephen remedies Hilary’s illness, but there is nothing she can really do for him regarding the racism he faces. Stephen’s storyline’s only purpose seems to be to make Hilary better, and even when he parts ways with her, he leaves an impact on her mental health. In the end, Stephen also stops running away and decides to go to college to study architecture. Stephen remains the most endearing person by the end of the film.


Norman: Reflection On Life

Norman is that character who is barely in the film but leaves a big impact on the viewer. Along with the other members of the team, leaving out the manager, everyone is extremely nice to Hilary. They all take care of her like family. Norman is honest with Hilary. He shows her the path to finding herself through Stephen. Norman is very particular about the projection room, calling the projectors his babies. Later, when we find out that he has a 22-year-old son who doesn’t want to see him, we realize this is a way of facing his guilt. When Hilary asks him why he left his wife and son, he says he doesn’t remember. Norman has suppressed his memories because of his guilt. His own life is a reflection of the films he shows people. He tells Stephen that a film is a way of escaping the darkness of life. Movies are static images with dark frames in between, but we have an optical illusion that helps us see past this flaw. Seeing only the light, the “illusion of life,” the magic of movies, the magic of art.

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Ruchika Bhat
Ruchika Bhat
Ruchika, or "Ru," is a fashion designer and stylist by day and a serial binge-watcher by night. She dabbles in writing when she has the chance and loves to entertain herself with reading, K-pop dancing, and the occasional hangout with friends.

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