Capturing light out of the darkness

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Illuminating the silver screen this week at Tryon Theatre is “Empire of Light,” a deeply personal character study wrapped in a love letter to cinema. “Empire of Light” tells the story of Hilary Smalls, a manager of the Empire Cinema in Margate, England, at the turn of the decade as England trudges in the Thatcher era. 

Smalls is played by the ever-compelling Olivia Coleman, who has established herself as one of the most compelling and capable actors of her generation. At the helm of this film are equally experienced hands, as Sam Mendes directs, and the unrivaled Roger Deakins provides his cinematography. 

“Empire of Light” is a very melancholy film, with the personal pain of its lead, Hilary, taking center stage in the film’s narrative focus. Hilary leads a quiet and rather sad life, allowing her work to consume her as her personal relationships leave her feeling disrespected and undervalued. She has subsumed her life to the service of the Empire Cinema, and in doing so has ironically detached herself from the greatest gift cinema has to give: the transportative and immersive experience of watching a film on the silver screen. For all her dedication and hard work, Hilary has never actually enjoyed a film in her own cinema. 

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Hilary’s coworkers are the closest relationships she has to a community (albeit an often unhealthy and warped one), and the introduction of a new, younger, coworker into her world brings with him newfound complications of emotion and politics. This newcomer to Hilary’s world is Stephen, the film’s deuteragonist, an old soul, but a young man. Stephen and Hilary quickly establish a conversational chemistry, although their age and racial differences make a deeper understanding of each other’s personal pain difficult to reach. 

The socio-political backdrop of the era in which these characters are operating is crucial to the respective understanding and limitations of both Hilary and Stephen, one as a woman, and one as a Black man. However, as is the case in life, these larger and more abstract influences, though weightily oppressive, take a relegated role to the importance of our personal relationships, and the even more important relationship we have with ourselves. 

The film’s cinematography is the love letter to cinema that enshrouds the personal and grounded narrative of Hilary and Stephen. The physical spaces of the film (the hallways, doorways, support struts, and arches) provide countless frames within frames. The dominant locale of the film’s narrative is the theater itself. As the title of the film suggests, light itself often takes center stage. 

The warm tungsten bulbs of the art deco theater, the dancing light of the projector as it filters through frames, and numerous shots of light as it’s reflected in various surfaces, from eyes to wine, to puddles and glass all celebrate film’s function as a medium, to capture light out of the darkness. We hope you will join us for this lovingly crafted film, and treasure the light of the screen!