a Black man and a white woman sit on the bus together
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

There’s an unforgettable scene in writer/director Sam Mendes’s Thatcher-era (aka early 1980s) Empire of Light when Hilary (Olivia Colman)—a depressed, underemployed middle-aged woman—unwittingly invokes Ruth Bader Ginsburg arguing a 1973 court case. Or rather, Hilary invokes Ginsburg paraphrasing the 19th century abolitionist Sarah Moore Grimké.

It’s a moment of rage that every femme surely felt, if not over the fall of Roe, then over the fundamental misogyny of a world where gender determines everything from bodily autonomy to personal wealth.

The scene unfolds at a beach, where Hilary is enjoying a rare day off from sweeping up the sticky floors at a local cinema. Her work life is dictated by her boss, Donald (Colin Firth), including his routine expectation that she “pop by the office”—aka give him a blow job—after clocking out. Her personal life is dictated by her doctor, who barely makes eye contact as he fiddles with her lithium levels.

Hilary and her best friend, (consensual) lover, and much younger coworker, Stephen (a deeply affecting Micheal Ward), are giddily building sand castles when Stephen gently suggests she’s making the turrets wrong. Hilary’s sudden, volatile reaction contains a lifetime’s worth of intense, bitter resentment in a handful of concise, bitterly hurled words: Why, she mutters with increasing ferocity, can’t men just stop endlessly stepping on the necks of women? She lays waste to the castle with unforgiving violence, while Stephen looks on in confusion and alarm. A Black man in Thatcher’s deeply racist England, Stephen has his own indelible reasons for rage. Although his connection with Hilary softens the world’s crueler edges for both, Empire of Light is no sugary British rom-com.

The love story is seemingly doomed from the start, if not by differences in age and race, then by the fact that both Hilary and Stephen have been buffeted all their lives by the message that they are less-than, undeserving, unimportant. Empire of Light highlights the ineffable joy when both discover that none of that is true. There’s an empire of hope in that. R, 115 min.

Wide release in theaters