Empire of Light: Darkness, and Nothing in Between


Have you ever wanted to let a movie wash you over? Have you ever wished for a movie to end before you grow as old as the characters in the movie?

I have always loved watching movies set in the past. It gives you a glimpse into an era you’ve only heard stories about. I love the visuals, the colour palette, the cinematography, the slow pace, the everything

Empire of Light is an aesthetically pleasing story about a duty manager of a seaside cinema, Hilary (Olivia Colman), as she forms a relationship with a new employee on the south coast of England during the 1980s. We see Hilary struggling with her mental health, struggling with her relationship with people, struggling with her sense of being, and just struggling.

Setting vs. Story

The strong points of this story were the acting and setting, and the weaker points were the characters, their stories and their relationships.

The aesthetic cinematography and dreamy imagery worked really well for the film’s chosen era. The setup felt purposefully charged with racial and mental issues, tricking you into thinking you cared when there was nothing about the relationship to care about.

However, the character development could have been better. Relationships weren’t built or explained enough to justify their depth to the audience. Vague backstories were more interesting than what was happening to the characters on screen. Some characters added nothing to the story while playing what usually are key roles, such as Stephen’s (Michael Ward) mum, Delia (Tanya Moodie) and Ruby (Stephen’s friend? Girlfriend?), played by Crystal Clarke.

Additionally, important characters, like Stephen’s mom, were introduced too late to affect the audience or the story. Somehow, Delia was made to feel important but had no crucial dialogues or action scenes. When she did appear on screen, the actress’ body language and dialogue were in an intense disconnect. I don’t think the movie itself knew what to make of Delia.

The dynamic between all the characters felt off, even within the main relationship that mattered the most. Hilary and Stephen had no justification for the intimacy they shared, which for that reason, was sometimes uncomfortable.

I wonder if that was intentional. Hilary, who is never truly loved by anyone, finds solace in the arms of a young, inexperienced man who showers her with attention. Stephen, who faces racism every other moment, sees a representative of his oppressors and tormentors treat him like an equal, seeing past his skin colour. This is the only way I can make sense of their relationship.

The actors do a phenomenal job. They are what make you want to stay. It’s the pacing that doesn’t work. Olivia Colman as Hilary is a treat. The few meltdowns her character has in the movie will have your hand flying to your mouth. She is amazingly brilliant in her portrayal of the character.

Open Threads, Loose Endings

As soon as Stephen is introduced, you know there will be an age-gap romance and a storyline with racism lurking beneath the surface. The movie doesn’t spend enough time building a connection between Hilary and Stephen for their chemistry to feel real or strong, which is funny, considering it feels half an hour too long.

I don’t know if it is intentional. Still, there’s so much time spent on things that feel unimportant, like Hilary showing Steven around the cinema in great detail (my first clue that the movie was going to swoop over more significant issues with lightning speed), that it has no time left to explore all the storylines it introduces.

Let me list all the threads the movie starts following:

  • racism and riots
  • psychiatric disorders and mental hospitals
  • age gap, interracial, and power imbalance relationships
  • loneliness, past trauma
  • dreams and hopes for a better future

Guess how many of these threads were actually knotted, and how many were just left to fray? Unfortunately, all of them. Even though tying everything up in a nice knot isn’t necessarily realistic, is it good enough for the screen?

When creating something, we often ask, “why should the audience care?” I think that question represents the film’s downfall. Empire of Light could have benefitted by being less ambitious with unresolved storylines, or this story could have been turned into a series with enough time to explore everything.

The movie started feeling like a drag, but then Hilary had an outburst. That’s the only point when I attempted to take notes.










Hilary exposes her boss (who had been taking advantage of her) to his wife in public, and this is what she says. The phone autocorrected it to “duck,” which is just wonderful.

This meltdown adds some excitement to the direction and teases the movie picking up pace, but nothing happens.

Both characters' main thematic struggles, namely racism and a psychiatric disorder, weren’t explored enough. The acting was beautiful and troubling however, there’s only so much the actors can do. You want something to happen to kick it up a notch, but you also can’t look away from Colman. Their relationship’s backdrop of racism and mental illness doesn’t work because those issues are way stronger than the relationship could ever be. Ultimately, the themes running in the background overpowered the love, friendship, and characters’ individuality.

I have many questions about the relationship Hilary and Stephen shared. It was clearly more about being lonely together, as much as the movie would like to depict otherwise. Honestly, I don’t know what the movie expected of its audience or what it hoped to achieve.

I had high expectations for a soulful movie set in the ‘80s, taking the audience by hand in the midst of turmoil and uproar of the harsh realities and ending with some sort of solace. Alas, my expectations were unrealistic, like Hilary and Stephen’s relationship. I still enjoyed the cinematography, so that’s something!

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