Empire of Light Parent Guide
Pulled down by pacing problems, this film has a stellar cast and complex themes.
Parent Movie Review
Hilary (Olivia Colman) lives life in a minor key. She completes mundane tasks, sees her psychiatrist, and goes to work at the Empire Cinema, a quietly decaying Art Deco theater on the waterfront. As Duty Manager, she supervises the staff, sells snacks, and satisfies the sexual demands of the Manager, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth). One day, Mr. Ellis introduces a new employee named Stephen (Michael Ward) and Hilary finds a new interest in life.
Stephen is bright, handsome, and friendly and fits right into the Empire Cinema crew. He and Hilary quickly fall into a friendship that soon becomes a little bit more. But there are complications: Stephen is in his 20s and Hilary is on the other side of 40; Stephen is black and Hilary is white; and Hilary’s mental health is more fragile than Stephen knows.
With Empire of Light, director Sam Mendes tries to tell an ambitious story about the human condition. He explicitly makes his point in a conversation between the theater’s projectionist, Norman (Toby Jones) and Stephen. As Norman explains how rolls of film are converted into images on a screen, he says “It’s just static frames, with darkness in between…If I run the film at twenty four frames per second, you don’t see the darkness…Seeing static images rapidly in succession, it creates an illusion of motion. An illusion of life.” In this film, Mendes intersperses the darkness of his characters’ lives with moments of light, hope, and friendship, with the goal of illuminating the breadth of their lives.
There’s no denying the darkness in this film, from Donald Ellis’s sexual exploitation of his employee to Hilary’s mental health crisis to a brutal attack carried out by skinheads. The sexual encounters between Ellis and Hilary are particularly unpleasant, as he requests a variety of sexual acts from a woman whose ability to consent is questionable at best. Viewers concerned about sexual content will note that the scenes are dimly lit and there is no nudity but there is some very descriptive dialogue. There are also sexual scenes between lovers, all carefully shot and lit to avoid anatomical details. Throw in a fair bit of profanity and the aforementioned racially motivated violence, and this is not a film for family-oriented audiences.
Fortunately, Mendes breaks up the darkness of his plot with light in the form of courage and connection. This is a story about people who don’t give up on themselves or each other. The Empire staff are fiercely loyal to one another, covering up for each other’s lapses, providing encouragement in tough times, and becoming a safe place to fall. The relationships are believable, thanks mainly to a truly spectacular cast. Olivia Colman is, of course, flawless, and she is matched by solid performances from the other actors. As a plus, the early 1980s detail is fun and film buffs will enjoy keeping track of movie names that pop up on the Empire’s marquee.
From a critical perspective, the movie’s biggest weakness is its pacing, which often feels agonizingly slow. I have no problem with thoughtful dramas that gradually unfold across the screen, but this movie had me checking my watch forty minutes in and every ten minutes thereafter. If the negative content is no deterrent, I would recommend waiting for the movie to stream: if you zone out, your couch is a more comfortable napping spot than the theater seats will be.
Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Olivia Colman, Micheal Ward, Colin Firth. Running time: 119 minutes. Theatrical release December 16, 2022. Updated January 13, 2023
Watch the trailer for Empire of Light
Empire of Light
Rating & Content Info
Why is Empire of Light rated R? Empire of Light is rated R by the MPAA for sexual content, language and brief violence.
Violence: A Black man is verbally harassed by a group of white men. A group of skinheads break into a business and brutally beat a black man, punching and shoving anyone who gets in the way. The man suffers broken ribs, cuts, bloody wounds, and lost teeth.
Sexual Content: There are repeated scenes of adulterous sexual activity between an employer and his employee. These scenes are dimly lit and no anatomical details are visible but there is explicit discussion about sexual acts. There are also sex scenes between lovers that are shot without nudity above the waist or in dimly lit situations. A man and woman are seen kissing. A man goes skinny dipping and is seen naked from behind.
Profanity: There are over four dozen profanities in the film, including at least 28 sexual expletives, ten terms of deity, six scatological curses, and a handful of anatomical references and minor profanities. There are also a variety of deeply offensive racial slurs. This is an undercount because the sound quality in the theater I attended was poor and I certainly missed some swear words, especially when they came in clusters.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Main characters smoke frequently. There are multiple scenes of social drinking.
Page last updated January 13, 2023
Empire of Light Parents' Guide
How would you describe Hilary and Stephen’s relationship? What brings them together? What factors pull them apart? What influence do they have on each other?
Related home video titles:
A more family-friendly tribute to the power of cinema can be found in The Fabelmans, a fictionalized biopic about the early life of director Steven Spielberg.
Paper Spiders is a sensitive look at the challenges of having a loved one with severe mental illness.
Olivia Colman delivers a powerful performance as the daughter of an elderly man suffering from dementia in The Father.