You oughta be in pictures, the old song said.
No one ever sung that song to Hilary Small. If Ms. Small was writ large on the silver screen, viewers wouldn’t finish even a small popcorn before they headed for the exits or fell asleep in their seats.
And then Hilary—being the night manager of the Empire, an English seaside movie theater in the early 1980s—would gently nudge them awake and sweep up the popcorn.
Oh, Hilary’s life could take an exciting turn or two if she let it. Drop her medication, and it could become very exciting indeed. But she knows where that path leads: straight to a mental institution. She’d rather not go there again. So she spends her nights rearranging the movie snacks, taking tickets and sometimes—if she must—satisfying the sexual proclivities of her boss, Mr. Ellis.
She admits to her therapist that her meds make her feel rather “numb.” Her therapist advises her to give it time. But for now, she walks in haze, as if her personal cinematographer was filming her with a too-strong filter, the edges so soft and blurred that moments feel like marshmallows squishing into each other.
But then a new employee shows up at the Empire. His name is Stephen—young, attractive, eager. He treats Hilary not as part of the Empire’s slowly fading furniture, but as regular ol’ person. It seems they could be friends, maybe even more. Hilary even takes Stephen up to the Empire’s deserted third floor, a place visited only by the pigeons.
“It really was beautiful,” Hilary says as they walk through the ruins.
“It still is,” Stephen says.
When they discover a bird with an injured wing, Stephen quickly binds the bird’s injury with part of a sock. “He needs a bit of help,” Stephen says.
Hilary needs a bit of help, too. Help to feel less numb. Help to encourage her, one day, to soar again. Perhaps Stephen can be that help—despite their age difference, their racial difference, their differences in a host of other areas.
But for that help to truly lead to something wonderful, the couple must deal with more than just a broken wing.
Initially, Hilary and Stephen’s working relationship feels quite positive. Stephen offers Hilary genuine warmth and friendship—something that, in Hilary’s drab life, feels like sunshine breaking through the British seaside clouds. And when Hilary catches Stephen making fun of a customer and puts an authoritative stop to it, Stephen takes the scold to heart.
The two draw closer with time, and that comes with some negative elements that we’ll detail later. But there’s no doubt that the two share (among other things) a unique and often beautiful friendship. She encourages him to pursue his real passion: becoming an architect. He helps usher her back into life itself. And when each experiences pain and setback, the other is there to try to help—whatever that help might entail.
Stephen’s mother sees their mutual affection, too. She tells Hilary that she doesn’t want to know what, exactly, the nature of their relationship is. But she expresses her gratitude for the older woman being a part of her son’s life. She makes Stephen smile, she tells Hilary.
While Hilary is not always very interactive or companionable, her co-workers treat her with affection and often seem protective of her.
I should make mention of one other worker at the Empire: Gruff Norman, the Empire’s projectionist. He, too, is charmed by Stephen’s earnestness, and Gruff expresses this by allowing the new fellow into his inner sanctum—the projection room. Gruff also gives Hilary a measure of healing. When Norman learns that Hilary, in all her time working at the Empire has never sat down to watch a movie, he encourages her to do so, telling her that the confines of a theater can be a strangely healing place. And when she does decide to watch a film at the Empire, Norman makes it happen—running a film from the projector room just for her.
There’s very little spiritual content here. But you could argue that director Sam Mendes argues in Empire of Light that movies themselves are a spiritual thing, and that the process of watching them can be an agent of healing and escape.
Outside of that observation, we hear a cynical reference to finding Jesus. A picture of Jesus hangs over a television set. A mental hospital is named after St. Jude.
Empire of Light revolves around the premiere of Chariots of Fire. While we don’t see any of the 1981 Oscar-winner, the film does feature some pretty notable spiritual moments itself.
To say that the Empire’s owner, Mr. Ellis, is having an affair with Hilary would be to ironically sully the word affair. Rather, he uses her for sex.
We see them engaged in such animalistic intimacies twice: A sexual encounter happens in shadow, but sounds and movement make it clear what’s happening. We see Hilary wash her hands afterward—a scene meant to convey her sense of shame. The second time they appear to be engaged in foreplay preparing for another sexual act. When Hilary later tells someone about their relationship, she mentions where Mr. Ellis keeps his condoms.
We later learn that Hilary’s father also had an affair with his secretary. It’s obvious that these two relationships (and perhaps others in Hilary’s past) have had a profound impact on her. When her medication lapses, Hilary unleashes angry tirades on the abuses of men.
Hilary eventually stops going into Mr. Ellis’ office for those “private meetings,” about the same time she and Stephen start engaging in their own intimacies. She kisses him unexpectedly and immediately regrets it, but later Stephen responds in kind. We see them in the throes of foreplay in the ruined upper level of the Empire. They kiss and hold each other elsewhere. And when they go on a date to the beach, Stephen runs into the ocean naked. (We see his rear end from a distance.)
Hilary is shown in a bathtub (though nothing critical is visible). Another couple gets together, and we see the two hold hands and walk companionably through town.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following section.]
Stephen is Black, and this particular seaside community has some virulently racist elements. During a protest, several people see Stephen through the Empire’s glass doors. They pound on those locked doors until the glass shatters; then they rush in and beat Stephen mercilessly, hitting and kicking him. Police arrive minutes later, but the damage is done: Stephen, bleeding and unconscious, is rushed to the hospital and spends several days there.
Hilary is schizophrenic. And when she and Stephen begin dating, Hilary decides to go off her meds. The result: She slowly spirals downward. And while she doesn’t get physically violent with anyone, she seems right on the brink: She destroys a sandcastle and wildly gesturing toward people (real and imaginary) whom she believes hurt her. She talks about how men have their “hands around our throats,” voicing her gender-specific rage. Eventually, law enforcement break through her door to take her away.
We hear that Hilary once found a dead body in the theater when she was cleaning up.
We hear more than 30 f-words and five s-words. We also hear reels of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “h—,” “d–k,” “p-ss” and the British profanity “bloody. God’s name is misused seven times, and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Hilary seems drunk in one scene. She and other characters drink wine, champagne (on New Year’s Eve) and other alcoholic beverages. Hilary takes medication for her mental illness, and we see vials of drugs in her bathroom.
Stephen deals with racists with some dispiriting frequency. A few hoodlums taunt and push him one day as he walks by himself, for instance.
Norman, the projectionist, has a picture of his son pinned up in the projection room—a son whom he hasn’t seen in years. When Hilary asks their estrangement from each other, Norman admits with a chuckle that he doesn’t even remember.
A worker at the Empire recounts when he found a popcorn tub that someone had vomited in. Hilary lies to her counselor.
“Nothing happens without light,” Norman solemnly intones. Without the light of the projector, movies are nothing—just small, static, individual frames. But spool them through the projector and illuminate them, and they move. They become magic.
But not all movies are magic.
Empire of Light comes with all the ingredients you’d think would make a memorable movie. It’s written and directed by Sam Mendes, the guy behind James Bond’s Skyfall and the Oscar-winning war movie 1917. It features a pair of Oscar winners in Olivia Colman and Colin Firth. It seems built to win plenty more awards—shipping in heavy issues like racism and mental health and centering the story on the romance of film. (Oscar voters love movies about movies.)
But Empire of Light focuses on its empire of ingredients and forgets the light. The film has so much going on that it, like Hilary, loses focus. And it leaves us instead with problems.
The movie pushes intentionally slimy sexual content to the audience, and the language can be shockingly raw. While the performances here are riveting (I’d not be surprised at all to see Colman with another Oscar nod), the overall impression is a bit underwhelming.
In Empire of Light, Hilary spends much of her time in a dispiriting theater, unwilling or unable to escape it. We, luckily, have no such obstacles. We can walk by Hilary’s Empire and enjoy a better light.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.