'Empire Of Light' Themes, Explained: Racism, Loneliness & More Unfolding Around A Movie Theater | DMT (2023)

Sam Mendes was on a pretty solid streak, starting with “American Beauty” and ending with “Skyfall.” It seemed like his heart wasn’t in “Spectre,” but there were moments where his genius shone through. Then he delivered the masterpiece that is “1917.” So, along with everyone else, I was looking forward to “Empire of Light,” where he follows the duty manager, Hilary (Olivia Colman), of the Empire Cinema. She shares an amicable relationship with her colleagues, particularly with Norman (Toby Jones), Neil (Tom Brooke), and Delia (Tanya Moodie). And her boss, Donald (Colin Firth), regularly requests her to jack him off, and she obliges because of the very obvious power dynamic. Things start to look up when the new employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), joins the squad, and Hilary strikes up a romantic relationship with him. But the deteriorating condition of England and Hilary’s mental state leads to various issues, and cinema ends up being the one element that keeps them all going.

Major Spoilers Ahead


Stephen’s race isn’t addressed when he enters the Empire Cinema because, evidently, none of the employees there are racists. It’s possible that since Hilary and the rest of them are White and their lives revolve around that movie theater, they aren’t even aware of the severity of the bigotry coursing through their town. They think that since music and the films featuring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder promote coexistence between races, it’s not an issue. But one day, when Hilary tails Stephen, she witnesses three neo-Nazi skinheads racially abusing him by telling him to go back to where he came from because he’s apparently taking away their jobs. Later on, a customer at the theater comes close to throwing a racial slur at Stephen just because he requested this man to finish his snacks before going in because no one’s allowed to bring in food from the outside. The worst racial incident happens when a group of those skinheads barges into the theater, vandalizes the place, and severely injures Stephen. That prompts Hillary to finally act against racism. However, it’s too little, too late. Before leaving for college, Stephen underscores the fact that racism isn’t going anywhere and is going to haunt everyone who looks like him.

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It’s admirable for a director to tackle racism because of its never-ending and heinous nature. But every time a White director comments on racism, it feels like they are either superficially apologizing for the sins of their ancestors as well as for the fact that they never cast Black actors in the role of the protagonist, or they are scripting racially charged moments to act out their sadistic fantasies. I am hoping it’s the former in the case of “Empire of Light” because of how surface-level and one-note Stephen’s character is. The two plot beats associated with him that’ll probably stick with you are the racial attacks on him and his inadvertent triggering of Hilary’s mental breakdown. In this day and age, you can’t just prop up Black actors, say “racism exists,” and then walk away. Do something about it. Use your privilege to put them in roles that celebrate their existence. The only moment where Mendes doesn’t treat him stereotypically is when he talks to Norman about how a projector works. The movie should’ve had more scenes like that, as it would’ve fleshed out Stephen instead of making him the personification of the film’s hollow statements on racism.

Mental Illness

From the opening moments of the film, we are told that Hilary is undergoing therapy to make sure that she is mentally and physically stable. After assuming that Stephen is going to fall in love with her and subsequently realizing that Delia has a better chance with him, she loudly reprimands him for mocking an elderly customer at the theater. She specifically tells him that one shouldn’t laugh at people, thereby hinting that she has been publicly ridiculed for her behavior. When Stephen tries to get her to talk about her previous romantic escapades, she gets incredibly furious and then apparently forgets all about her quarrel with him. The moment when Neil tells her to be careful because he doesn’t want her to repeat her romantic mistakes again shows that there’s a pattern to her behavior. Her public outburst on the premiere night of “Chariots of Fire” causes Donald to blurt out that she has been employed despite the social workers’ suggestion not to do so. And when Stephen finally confronts her about her issues, she blames it on childhood trauma and the men in her life for it. Seconds after this disclosure, she is taken away to a mental hospital by Rosemary Bates (Monica Dolan), where she begins her recovery process again.

I’m not very sure what Sam Mendes is trying to say through Hilary because the handling of her mental illness is very cliche and shallow. He goes through all the familiar beats that we’ve seen before in better movies about victims suffering from a similar illness. And he skips the part where we can (and probably must) see what it takes to recover from such a heartbreaking experience. Wouldn’t that have been educational for viewers and made them empathetic towards Hilary and her condition? “Empire of Light” runs into another problem by commenting on sexism through Hilary. She brings up very valid points about the male-dominated society and how, despite being the aggressors, men don’t pay for their transgressions while women are unfairly punished. However, the focus on her mental state is so much more than the cause—which is the trauma inflicted upon her by her mother, her teacher, her doctor, and Donald—that the takedown of misogyny and internalized misogyny becomes diluted. Most of us know that bad parenting and abusive relationships can impact a person mentally. So, reiterating that to us is pointless. If Mendes wanted to get to the people who don’t associate trauma with sexism and problematic upbringing, he should’ve done more. Because, now, all they’re going to see are the ramblings of a woman in need of medical and professional help instead of identifying its cause.

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Mendes’s observations of loneliness are probably the movie’s best aspect, but sadly it isn’t explored in detail. Hilary’s daily routine shows that there’s no one in her life. She finds solace in the most decrepit area of the Empire Cinema. And the saddest part is that, despite catering to hundreds of people on a daily basis, she doesn’t join them in the communal experience that is watching a movie in a theater. Norman describes the process of projecting a film as moving the frames of a reel at such a speed that the darkness between them becomes invisible. It’s so poetic and yet so haunting because it seems like he isn’t just trying to evade the darkness that exists between those frames but also the one that exists in his life as well. If you think that’s sad, well, prepare for the punch to the gut that comes when Norman talks about his estranged relationship with his son because Norman presumably abandoned him. When Hilary asks Norman the reason he left, he says that he doesn’t even remember. The obvious assumption is that he doesn’t want to share the information. However, there’s a good chance that he doesn’t remember because the lines between his life story and the countless ones that he has projected have blurred.

Despite the overall bleakness of this particular subplot, it feels nice to see an aspect of cinema that’s often overlooked, i.e., the people who run a theater. There’s no doubt that moviemaking is an incredibly tough job. But once the film is locked and loaded to go, it’s up to these overworked and underpaid individuals to make sure that the work of art is presented and consumed in the most ideal conditions possible. We always remember our worst theater experiences, and we love to complain about the problems with the projector, the subpar sitting conditions, the unclean floors, the bad snacks, etc. However, when things go smoothly, we don’t even remember that there’s a small army of people making sure that the only thing you take back is the experience of watching a good movie. As shown in “Empire of Light,” it’s a thankless job, and, save for a few, a lot of people’s hearts aren’t in it because they treat it as a job and not as a necessary arm of the entertainment industry. Why would they? The entertainment industry doesn’t treat them all that fairly. It’s only because of dedicated people like Norman who overcome their unhappiness and teach the ropes to the next generation of projectionists that the magic of cinema is alive. So, the next time you have a good viewing experience, don’t forget to thank your ticket checker, the person behind the snack corner, and the projectionist.

Escapism Through Cinema

The biggest missed opportunity—and I don’t know how Mendes committed this mistake in a movie about a movie theater—is the therapeutic and healing power of a film. It’s reserved for that one scene at the end where Hilary finally decides to watch a film chosen by Norman and understands the medium’s magical powers. It’s a beautifully crafted moment, but that’s about it. The emotional weight that it deserves is absolutely missing. There are many reasons for that, but the primary one is the surprisingly small amount of time spent observing the impact of various films on various groups of viewers. That time is dedicated to creating a contrast between what is happening on the screen and what is happening in real life. As mentioned before, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor can defy social norms and choose to work together. But, in real life, there’s no such choice, and social norms are simply thrust upon Stephen. And, at the cost of sounding repetitive, that’s about it. Because after that, Mendes becomes too busy dealing with all the other subplots that have nothing to do with movies or the theater.

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That’s when you are forced to ask, “If this movie wasn’t centered around a film theater, would it have been any different?” If the central location had been a diner, a laundromat, a fire station, a police station, a railway station, or a grocery shop, would it have made any difference? If your answer is “no,” then that means that Mendes didn’t do justice to the film’s primary location and the one thing that allows us to escape our mundane lives and travel to various places from our local theater. As the characters are so desperately trying to escape their real-world issues, Mendes could’ve commented on the real versus fictional contrast by showing the real-life impact of the movies based on fictional stories that they project on a daily basis. Then that final moment would’ve attracted a proper emotional response. Since the nuances of the relationship between a film and its audience aren’t peppered throughout the screenplay, and despite Colman’s amazing performance, Hilary’s triumphant climax seems frivolous. With all that said, I’ve got to admit that cinema is highly subjective in nature. Hence, there’s a good chance that your reaction to “Empire of Light” can be the polar opposite of mine, and you can find yourself bawling at the sight of Olivia Colman crying while watching “Being There.”

See More: ‘Empire Of Light’ Ending, Explained: Does Hilary And Stephen’s Romantic Relationship Last In The End?

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What is the theme of Empire of Light? ›

Sam Mendes' latest effort, Empire of Light, is a messy film about love, mental health, cinema and racial tensions in Margate in the 1980s.

What is the story behind the movie Empire of Light? ›

Empire of Light is a 2022 British romantic drama film directed, written, and co-produced by Sam Mendes. Set in an English coastal town in the early 1980s, the film is about the power of human connection during turbulent times.

Is The Empire of Light Based on a true story? ›

While the plot is an original work, Mendes revealed in an interview with The Guardian that the character of Hilary was heavily based on his own mother, Valerie.

Is The Empire of Light on Netflix? ›

Now streaming: 'Empire of Light' on HBO Max, 'Your Place or Mine' on Netflix. Here's what's new on Video on Demand, Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu and other services.

What are 3 key characteristics of the empire? ›

Characteristics of an empire consist of: Strict hierarchy - a large gap of inequality and authority between rulers and the citizens. Imperialism - the expansion of the empire's dominion through colonization or conquest. Colonization can be forced or peaceful.

What are the basic concepts of an empire? ›

An empire is an aggregate of many separate states or territories under a supreme ruler or oligarchy. This is in contrast to a federation, which is an extensive state voluntarily composed of autonomous states and peoples. An empire is a large polity which rules over territories outside of its original borders.

What is impact at Empire cinema? ›

IMPACT® is the ultimate way to experience blockbuster movies, SPECTACULAR screens, SENSATIONAL DOLBY ATMOS sound, SUPERB stadium seating and extra leg room! Up weight charges apply. Additional charges apply for 3D performances and when using 241 offers / vouchers for films in IMPACT®.

How accurate is the movie Empire of the Sun? ›

Is this based entirely on JG Ballard's experiences during the war? No. The book (which the movie was based on) is a semi-autobiographical - semi-fictionalised account of Ballard's life and his experiences during the second world war.

Why is Empire of Light Rated R? ›

Why is Empire of Light rated R? Empire of Light is rated R by the MPAA for sexual content, language and brief violence.

What country is Empire of the Sun based on? ›

A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Based on J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, tells the story of a boy, James Graham, whose privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941.

What true story is Empire State based on? ›

“Empire State” chronicles the facts of the real-life heist, when the crew stole $11 million from the deposits of the Sentry armored car company in New York City in 1982.

Did Netflix remove black light? ›

Once the show finishes, that begins a countdown (typically a 5-year countdown) as to when we see all seasons of said show depart. With season 4 of Black Lightning added on June 16th, 2021, that means we should see all four seasons depart from Netflix US in June 2026.

Where is Empire of Light being filmed? ›

For this, Mendes chose Margate, a great British resort of the Victorian era, now revitalised by the arrival of the Turner Contemporary museum and new hotels and bars, but at the time the film is set a place in seemingly terminal decline.

Is Empire on Netflix or Hulu? ›

Right now you can watch Empire on Hulu Plus. You are able to stream Empire by renting or purchasing on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

What are the 7 characteristics of empires? ›

  • Stable food supply.
  • Social structure.
  • System of government.
  • Religious system.
  • Highly developed culture.
  • Advances in technology.
  • Highly developed written language.

What are the four stages of empire? ›

Back to Tour Intro
  • The Course of Empire: The Savage State.
  • The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State.
  • The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire.
  • The Course of Empire: Destruction.
  • The Course of Empire: Desolation.

What is an example of an empire? ›

a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, French Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman Empire.

What is the full meaning of empire? ›

em·​pire ˈem-ˌpī(ə)r. : a major political unit with a large territory or a number of territories or peoples under one ruler with total authority. especially : one having an emperor as chief of state. : the territory of such a unit. : something resembling an empire.

What is the most important characteristics of a empire? ›

At its most basic, an empire is a complex political organization where a dominant central state controls weaker peripheral (outer) states. There is no single recipe for making an empire, but the main ingredient is always control.

What is the main goal of an empire? ›

The purpose of historical empires was to create and secure an economic zone. Empires were not about the acquisition of land, much less looting. It just extended a unified political and legal system over new territory and provided the means to defend it against criminal and foreign predatation.

What are the negative impact of cinema on society? ›

Love, hatred, vengeance, savage violence, rape and many other undesirable activities are shown within such a short period of time. But for the cinema, many people would not have had occasions in their real-life to experience the kind of scenes such as murder, rape, vengeance shown in the cinema.

What is the impact of cinema on society? ›

It is said to be a reflection of the society only. So, it helps us come face to face with the actuality of what's happening in our society. It portrays things as they are and helps in opening our eyes to issues we may have well ignored in the past. Similarly, it helps people socialize better.

What is the impact of film on society? ›

Movies can create awareness on multiple aspects of life

Besides that, film brings us to understand the negative effects of drugs, alcohol, and substance abuse. Crime and action TV shows also warn us about the dangers of criminal activities, terrorism, and war.

Did Empire get Cancelled? ›

After many months of drama surrounding cast member Jussie Smollett, Fox TV show Empire has been cancelled.

Is the empire based on Game of Thrones? ›

While Game of Thrones is a fictional series based on George RR Martin's bestselling novels from A Song of Ice and Fire saga, The Empire is based on Alex Rutherford's series of books, Empire of the Moghul.

Is Empire of the Sun religious? ›

There's little overtly religious in the new Empire of the Sun album, Ice on the Dune, but it is nonetheless immersed in the band's biblical-style mythology, which follows the adventures of the Emperor (Steele) and the Prophet (Littlemore).

Does empire of gold have happy ending? ›

The Empire of Gold, the conclusion of author S.A. Chakraborty's rich, magical Daevabad trilogy is just such an ending – one that will leave readers very happy and very sad by turns, but utterly satisfied all the same.

Does Empire of Storms have romance? ›

Many readers also go to Maas' novels for the romance, and fans will not be disappointed with the exciting new relationships that form in Empire of Storms. There are sparks and connections between the most unlikely of characters, and Aelin and Rowan's romance has gone up a notch in this book too.

Will there be Empire 2? ›

This volatility, alongside the fact that most k-dramas wrap up their stories in a single season, reinforces that it's going to be very unlikely that this is renewed. With all things considered, we predict The Empire will not be renewed. We'll be sure to update this section with more details as they become available.

What is the main theme of The Empire Strikes Back? ›

"The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)" is a musical theme present in the Star Wars franchise. It was composed by John Williams for the film The Empire Strikes Back.

What does the Course of Empire represent? ›

The Course of Empire (1833-1836) paintings represent the rise and collapse of an imagined metropolis on the lowest end of a river valley, at its confluence with a seaside bay.

What is the most famous line from The Empire Strikes Back? ›

"Never tell me the odds." - Han Solo, Empire Strikes Back (1980)

What is the famous line from Empire Strikes Back? ›

Yoda quotes from The Empire Strikes Back. 1. “Always with you, it cannot be done.

What is the meaning of the title Empire writes back? ›

9780415280198. The title refers to Salman Rushdie's 1982 article "The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance". In addition to being a pun on the film Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the phrase refers to the ways postcolonial voices respond to the literary canon of the colonial centre.

What is the true meaning of empire? ›

Supreme power in governing ; imperial power ; sovereignty ; supremacy : the territory, region or countries under the jurisdiction and dominion of an Emperor ; supreme control : governing influence ; sway ; rule ; any land 'or water over which dominion is extended.

What are the three reasons why Americans wanted to build an empire *? ›

Three factors fueled American Imperialism.
  • Economic competition among industrial nations.
  • Political and military competition, including the creation of a strong naval force.
  • A belief in the racial and cultural superiority of people of Anglo-Saxon descent.

What is the core of an empire? ›

At its core, an empire is the domination of one state by another. This idea lies at the heart of the common use of the term 'empire' and is as old as state-building itself. The earliest city-states tried to grow by taking over their neighbours.

What are the 4 stages of an empire? ›

The Course of Empire comprises the following works: The Course of Empire – The Savage State; The Arcadian or Pastoral State; The Consummation of Empire; Destruction; and Desolation.

What are the four phases of empire? ›

Back to Tour Intro
  • The Course of Empire: The Savage State.
  • The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State.
  • The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire.
  • The Course of Empire: Destruction.
  • The Course of Empire: Desolation.

What are the 4 characteristics of an empire? ›

  • Strong central government. Empires were very large, so they needed strong governments. ...
  • Bureaucracy. Non-elected government workers who manage people, resources, and land. ...
  • Militarism. ...
  • "Global" trade networks. ...
  • Standardization. ...
  • Infrastructure. ...
  • Unification strategy.

Why is Empire of Light rated R? ›

Why is Empire of Light rated R? Empire of Light is rated R by the MPAA for sexual content, language and brief violence.


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