I’m not some problem to be solved.
The lithium has left Hilary (Olivia Colman) numb. That’s what she tells her doctor before he replies that the feeling will go away once she gets used to the medication. It isn’t necessarily affecting her job performance as duty manager of the Empire Cinema, though. If anything, “numb” might help considering what occurred to spark the prescription in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself since that information isn’t revealed until later. For now, writer/director Sam Mendes simply needs Hilary to be an awkward introvert prone to depression so that he can bring her to life via a new employee (Micheal Ward‘s Stephen). While most films would tease romance despite the age difference before dialing back, however, Empire of Light dives in head-first for love.
Stephen is therefore a “fix.” But, like most “fixes,” he isn’t a solution. The moment Hilary starts to feel alive in his arms is the moment she forgets that she’s sick. It leads to random outbursts of aggression that Mendes doesn’t feel the need to contextualize beyond their abrupt nature since he’s happy to just abruptly shift back to manic bliss with a jump cut. Her usual reliability both as an exemplar employee and as her boss’ (Colin Firth‘s Mr. Ellis) sex doll is thus dismantled once Hilary grows more confident in pursuing her desires. And we’re asked to question whether this is a good result or a bad one since the lack lithium gives her back her life and threatens to destroy it at the same time.
So, Mendes distracts us from that duality by pretending Hilary is a “fix” for Stephen too. And if the reductive handling of mental illness seems lacking, just wait until you see why this character proves to be the only Black person on-screen for more than half the runtime. Because the 1980s in England was a rough period for race relations due to a rise in violence, Stephen becomes a whipping boy to endure it alone in every form imaginable (physical beat-downs, psychological torment, verbal abuse, and even fearing to keep his arm around a white woman’s shoulders in view of one white man’s stare). Rather than have Hilary’s whiteness act as protection (their coworkers all take a shine to him), however, his pain becomes drawn for her edification.
It’s one thing to walk out of the theater thinking a film was all over the place, but it’s another to realize the reason doesn’t merely stem from an inability to marry the light-hearted romance with the heavy-handed, high-stakes drama. No, it was an inability to marry what appears to be a desire to have both “magical negro” and “white savior” tropes propel the narrative forward. What I thought was confusion in the moment was really discomfort. My brain couldn’t process just how one-dimensional and manipulative every single action on-screen proved since it’s all delivered with the blunt force trauma of a sledgehammer to the temple. Hilary doesn’t want to be controlled by men. Stephen doesn’t want to be killed by bigots. If only the world could know!
Who is Empire of Light for then? Is it racists to teach grade school empathy? Maybe. But it’s also wrapped within a box that promises the magic of cinema and art, so it’s clearly targeting the choir already on-board. I’m not sure either wants a steady stream of torture porn using a woman to shine a light on misogyny and a Black man to showcase bigotry. She’s sexually assaulted. He’s publicly humiliated. She’s demeaned and thrown into an institution. He’s attacked and sent to the hospital. And every time they fall, they get back up. Maybe it would seem brave if any of it felt real and not so superficially smug. What experience does a white man have to tell their stories anyway besides that of their assailants?
Speaking of the “magic of cinema”: what does a movie theater setting add to the underlying themes? Nothing. They could literally be working retail or fast food and nothing changes. Rather than have Hilary’s character never watch a film despite working there for years, they could have made it so that she’d never eaten a fry. Beyond yet another heavy-handed scene where Toby Jones‘ Norman explains how a projector works to Stephen (to conjure his wide-eyed wonder), it’s wholly inconsequential. I guess it’s fun to see which 1980-1981 titles grace the marquee, but that’s hardly crucial information towards knowing how Hilary and Stephen tick. It’s all a pretty backdrop for their suffering while they constantly reinforce how it isn’t their fault that they are schizophrenic and Black respectively.
Credit to the production design, though. This thing looks wonderful—especially the contrast between the theater’s working floor and the one that’s closed due to disuse. There’s probably a metaphor in there (complete with a fresh coat of paint), but it never proves smart enough for us to dig deeper and care. We gaze upon its visual beauty instead. We bask in the period detail and cringe at the on-the-nose dialogue that always reminds us how “different” our two leads are (if you can even call Stephen a lead considering his entire trajectory exists as something for Hilary to watch rather than an autonomous path forward for himself). Colman and Ward are both very good, but neither can transcend the cardboard cutouts they’re asked to play.
 Toby Jones and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
 Colin Firth and Micheal Ward in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.
 Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in the film EMPIRE OF LIGHT. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.