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


Sam Mendes’ new romantic drama film “Empire of Light” sets out to explore the magic of cinema while also chartering a love story at a time of social turmoil. It presents the tale of a film theater’s deputy manager, Hilary Small, and how she finds love and comfort in her new younger colleague, Stephen. Set in the early 1980s in England, the film also focuses on racial tension and abuse in society following Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as the country’s Prime Minister. All this combined, along with it also being a slight memoir of Mendes’ own teenage years, makes “Empire of the Light” a promising film, but one that perhaps lacks the sharpness or effect that would be expected of it.

Spoilers Ahead

‘Empire of Light’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?

“Empire of Light” begins with a scene of the protagonist, Hilary Small, carefully bringing to life a grand old theater where she works, named the Empire Cinema. Although warm and majestic in its stature, it is evident that the Empire Cinema has seen better days, as the two-screen theater does not do much business. Hilary is the deputy manager here, whose job includes a bit of everything, from cleaning the halls after a show to selling snacks at the lobby counter. But like the theater itself, Hilary is not in the best of states, both personally and at work. She suffers from mental struggles and regularly keeps in touch with her doctor, who recently prescribed her lithium medication.

Although the rest of her colleagues at the Empire Cinema are good and accepting of her, the boss, Donald, the manager of the place, sexually exploits her on a regular basis. Hilary’s life does stir soon when a new employee named Stephen is hired by the theater as a ticket collector. The young man shows an instant interest in the theater and working at a grand place like this, is almost mesmerized at every step. On the first day of work, Hilary shows Stephen around the theater, and upon his insistence, they go up to an abandoned section of the place, which was once another part of the theater with two more halls. Both the characters are interested in each other, and they soon start a romantic relationship too, but more struggles crop up for them with time. Meanwhile, racial tensions also grow stronger in the town of Margate in England’s Kent, where the Empire Cinema is based, and Stephen’s life as a Black man grows more difficult in this sense too.

What Are The Thematic Elements That The Film Focuses On?

Perhaps the most immediate gripe about “Empire of Light” is that it takes a number of threads and binds them together throughout its 113-minute runtime, but unfortunately, that binding does not deliver very well. There are times when the film seems aimless, and at others, it is too involved in its erstwhile subject matter. At the center, at least initially, is the set of characters that we see at Empire Cinema, headed by the protagonist, Hilary.

The character of Hilary gradually falls into place as someone struggling to keep herself stable mentally, and it is then revealed that she suffers from bipolar disorder. Hilary lives in extreme loneliness, which affects her too, as she is seen eating and going about her daily chores all by herself. Even when she is out for dinner at a restaurant, a book is her only companion. There is, in fact, also a sense of a wish to end it all in her as we see her slide into the tub of water at her house, her hands slowly losing the grip. But Hilary always comes back up, perhaps out of habit than anything else, like she keeps living with Donald’s extramarital advances towards her and doing nothing against it. It is clear that the woman is disgusted by the whole situation, but she does not protest against it during the first half of the film. It is also, undoubtedly, the only physical touch she has, and perhaps her loneliness is also at play in such a decision. Therefore, when young Stephen walks into his new job at the theater and into her life, Hilary is softly excited about his presence. She cannot help but take a peek at his bare waist when Stephen helps an injured pigeon in the abandoned halls of the theater. Both to her as well as Stephen, this space of old unused furniture and cooped-up pigeons becomes a space of emotions.

Although their first kiss takes place on the rooftop as the world ushers in the new year of 1981, their first expression of mutual passion does take place inside the empty hall. From then on, the place becomes synonymous with passion and intimacy for the two lovers. Their romance reaches its peak on a trip to the beach, where the two spend some loving moments, but it also turns into a bitter experience with Hilary’s outburst against being told what to do, which is definitely fueled by her undisclosed past and her internal struggles. Stephen does not react to it, though; it is almost like he understands her situation; after all, it was their sensitive nature that brought the two together. But Hilary cannot take it when Stephen later tells her that it is perhaps best for them not to continue the relationship, and she feels hurt by such a suggestion. Although Stephen’s sense of insecurity about the world is at the center of this suggestion, Hilary’s own insecurity about herself kicks in. She had been evidently jealous of Janine, the younger ticket collector at the theater who had expressed interest in Stephen, and now perhaps feels betrayed by her lover.

Hilary spirals out of control from here on, as it is also now revealed that she had to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital about a year earlier. Despite Stephen’s best efforts to reach out to her, Hilary does not come to work or leave her house at all for a stretch of days. When she does, though, she chooses to go all guns blazing at the regional premiere of “Chariots of Fire” taking place at the Empire Cinema. She reveals to her colleagues and, more importantly, to Donald’s wife that the man had been sexually exploiting her. Even though there is truth to the matter and some of her colleagues also know of it, this does not end well for Hilary, as she is once again forced to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

On the other side is Stephen, who struggles with the societal vice of racism, which is shown to be massively on the rise in Kent in 1981. As he himself admits, Stephen’s mother had faced such racist attacks; he does at the end of the film, and perhaps his children also will, and there is a clear sense of despair in such a statement. But Stephen’s character is also marked with a strong wish to shout and fight against racism, and even though he is unable to ever do it himself, the man keeps news of every Black movement and protest taking place at the time. Some days into their budding romance, when Hilary follows Stephen on the street, she witnesses him getting harassed by white wastrel youths, who are angry with their belief that it is the Blacks and other people of color who are taking away job opportunities from them.

Perhaps Hilary also intends to fight against such situations, but she too is unable to do so and is bound by some excuse or another. While in this instance, she stands at a distance with Stephen having no idea about her presence, later on, a similar situation pans out when an old customer at the theater is almost about to use a racist slur against Stephen. The young man obviously expects Hilary to protest against this and take his side, not just as his new lover but as his colleague as well and is extremely disappointed when Hilary instead tries to defuse the situation by complying with the racist man. Nonetheless, he still supports Hilary and continues to provide her love and company, but Stephen also starts to realize that their relationship cannot last long. Especially so after the events of the film premiere, and the man starts to accept the reality after this. During this time, he grows close to the projectionist at Empire Cinema, Norman, who is otherwise a very particular man who does not allow anyone else to enter his room. Stephen learns the procedures involved in a film screening, which is one more short diversion that ‘Empire of Light’ takes. Stephen then gradually gets romantically involved with a girl of his own age named Ruby.

However, Stephen and Hilary’s friendship never fades and only gets better in the latter half of the film, after Hilary returns from the hospital. Finding her seated by the sea one day, Stephen encourages her to come back to the Empire Cinema and resume her work. By now, the horrid boss Donald was gone, having moved to Brighton, and Hilary did decide to return. She is welcomed back at the theater warmly by her colleagues, but that very same day is marked by a horrible incident when a racist, far-right protest march takes place on the streets outside. Some of its members spot Stephen, break into the place, and viciously beat him up until they are arrested by the police. Having to be admitted to the hospital, Stephen is looked after by his nurse mother, Delia, and it is now also Hilary who goes to visit him.

The woman, at first, has her doubts as to whether she should act this way and make her presence felt by Stephen and his mother, and herein lies one more point on which “Empire of Light” focuses. In the last part, it harps on the need to provide support and warmth to close ones in need instead of running away from real emotions and feelings. Hilary definitely wanted to visit Stephen, but she refrained from doing so for a couple of weeks out of a desperation to keep herself away. Perhaps there is also an element of societal perception about the differences between herself and Stephen, and Hilary also finds it difficult to face her lover’s mother in such a scenario. However, facing one’s true feelings is exactly what Stephen does earlier when he talks to Hilary by the sea after initially choosing not to. This is also what Hilary now pushes herself to do, and it is this effort that triumphs.

Going to the hospital once more, she meets with Stephen, who cherishes her presence. Perhaps even more importantly, Delia now talks to her and tells her how her son still remembers the time he spent with her very fondly. Although it is not very directly expressed by her, Delia approves of whatever Hilary has done for her son, and she also appreciates her support at present. When Hilary returns to Empire, she now asks Norman to play a film on the big screen only for her. From the very beginning of the film, it had been a crucial point that Hilary had never watched a film at the theater, and now when she does, it is almost like jubilation at her triumph. This scene, too, is “Empire of Light” and Sam Mendes’ own tribute to the history of moving images, but in a more subtle form than similar scenes in recent films.

‘Empire Of Light’ Ending Explained: Do Hilary And Stephen’s Romance Last In The End?

As Hilary watches “Being There” on the big screen and weeps emotionally, Sam Mendes’ camera (or rather, the camera of cinematographer Roger Deakins) shows the walls of Norman’s projection room, which is filled with photographs of actors and stills from films. This scene seems like the real climax of the film, as the great effect to which it had been leading up is now done. Hilary and Stephen’s romantic relationship, in whatever shape or form it was, was never meant to last. Ultimately, “Empire of Light” is also about internal realizations about love, as the two are made to go their own ways in the end. Stephen had been trying to get into college to study architecture for some time now but was unable to get through anywhere.

It was Hilary who had encouraged him not to give up and keep pursuing his interest, and this encouragement now brings results as Stephen is accepted at the University of Bristol. He has to go away from Kent, from Empire Cinema, and from Hilary, and he meets with her to inform her of this. Hilary does take time to accept the situation, for she had grown attached to having Stephen around, but they ultimately end their relationship with a loving embrace. Stephen is seen taking the train to Bristol, reading Philip Larkin’s “The Trees” from a book that Hilary had gifted to him, and on the other side, Hilary looks content and excited with where she is in life. With the promise of new beginnings through the voiceover in the poem and the promise to keep meeting each other during vacations, “Empire of Light” ends with a positive and hopeful tone.

“Empire Of Light” is a 2022 Drama Romance film directed by Sam Mendes.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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