The Empire is the kind of movie house you don’t see too often anymore, framed by bright lights and a beautiful marquee, graciously inviting all into its red-velvet seats. Hilary (Olivia Colman) serves at the front of house, opening the theatre every morning and overseeing a brimming concession stand. Meanwhile, her manager (Colin Firth) calls her into his office from time to time for illicit favors. It’s a gloomy routine that Hilary grudgingly repeats, but all her co-workers recognize that she’s been a lot quieter since returning to the job after a long absence.
When Stephen (Micheal Ward) arrives as an eager new employee, the two form a quick, if outwardly unlikely, connection. Hilary hides a troubled past, struggling to manage her mental health, while Stephen, a young Black man, grapples with the racism rampant in 1980s Britain. Both wounded by aggressions outside their control, they find an escape and safe harbour in one another—but their relationship, like the Empire cinema itself, cannot last forever.