Both an intimate character drama and an ode to cinema, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is the story of a troubled woman trying to find a foothold in life. While Empire of Light wont appeal to those seeking action and adventure, the contrast between the optimism of movies and the cynicism of the main character is striking.

Set in the early 1980’s, Hilary Small (Olivia Colman) is the duty manager at the Empire Cinema, located in the seaside town of Margate, England. For years, she has dutifully done her job, but has no interest in the films, never bothering to watch them. Occasionally, she drops into the office of her boss Donald Ellis (Colin Firth), with whom she has an ongoing extramarital affair that is just sex. The arrival of new employee Stephen (Michael Ward) is a welcome bright spot in her life. While they sneak into an abandoned part of the theater for sex, they also talk, forming a strong emotional connection.

Hilary is on lithium for bipolar, a condition that resulted in an earlier hospitalization. She  isn’t quick to form deep relationships but seems to relate to Stephen, who has demons of his own. Daily, he must deal with the significant racial tensions of the time. In his early twenties, Stephen doesn’t want to be stuck in Margate. As his and Hilary’s relationship grows, Stephen learns that Hilary’s eccentricities are far more than just her personality.

Olivia Coleman delivers another excellent performance, playing Hilary’s emotional frailty with a natural realism. Her scenes with Ward are wonderful, as the stars have a dynamic chemistry. Most important, their unlikely friendship feels real. Ward shines in a secondary plot that has him aware of the rise of the skinhead movement and his determination to stand up against it. In a small role, Colin Firth hits the mark as a man who feels free to abuse his position. The theater too is a character of sorts, serving as refuge for audiences dealing with the ups and downs of life.

The Digital HD Copy includes the following extras:

  • Creating Empire of Light (HD, 18:12) A solid EPK that includes interviews with writer-director Sam Mendes, actress Olivia Colman and others.