In the staff room, she smiles shyly at the antics of the much younger crew, but when her boss, Donald Ellis (Colin Firth) enters the room and barks orders at everyone, he sucks all the joy out of his team. However, he smiles at Hilary, and we think perhaps that she's the one employee who escapes his wrath. But when he invites her to his office -- something we learn that he does frequently -- it's to use her for a quick sexual encounter, which Hilary submits to but obviously doesn't enjoy.
When she's at home, we see the depths of her depression, as she lives her quiet, lonely life -- without even one friend. Her only social interactions are with her doctor as she attends routine checkups.
When a young man named Stephen (Micheal Ward) joins the crew, he brings a spark with him. The two bond -- Hilary is a social outcast, and Stephen gets routinely picked on and/or beaten up for the color of his skin while walking on the street. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful about life, and his sweetness rubs off on his colleague. An unlikely romance even develops between the two.
The film almost seems like two movies in one -- one is about a depressed woman who has had much trauma in her life, and the other is about a handsome, intelligent and classy Black man who lives in a world that's frustrating and dangerous for people of his skin color.
Olivia Colman's performance is impeccable -- she inhabits Hilary as a woman who suffers from great emotional pain, but who tries to rally when she's around other people in order to not let them see what's inside.
In another actor's hands, Donald Ellis could have been entirely two-dimensional. Although he's playing an extremely unikeable character, Colin Firth brings warmth to the man where he can, portraying him as a complicated person who may, at one time, have been sympathetic.
As Stephen, Micheal Ward's character is less complicated than Colman's or Firth's, but he holds his own playing opposite Colman -- the audience quickly comes to care for him.
Empire of Light takes the audience on an emotional and nostalgic journey, and the performances make every moment of the film worth the trip to the theater. ~Alexandra Heilbron
4.5 out of 5 stars.
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