Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This large-scale HBO miniseries is a class act that gathers a long list of acclaimed actors
to bring Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen. Reshaped to a filmic format,
the novel is brought down to the level of a soap opera with only slightly more compelling characters
than usual. Great dramatic events seem like pointers back to the book and only grudgingly take on
a life of their own. The wholly compelling character of Miles Roby seems frustratingly indecisive
as the central figure - these people don't do things, things happen to them. With so many
stories to tell, some characters seem left out while others resolve in much too tidy a fashion.
Russo brings on a Columbine-like debacle in his third act, a 'shocking' incident that seems imposed
on a less sensational story.
None of this will matter to viewers ready to enjoy three hours with some of their favorite stars -
Empire Falls is still far more accomplished than most of what's produced for television.
Empire Falls, Maine is a depressed community economically controlled by Francine
Whiting (Joanne Woodward), an imperious and controlling widow. Miles Roby (Ed Harris)
runs a café for Francine but is stifled by her entreaties that he run as her mayoral candidate
and marry her crippled daughter Cindy (Kate Burton), who still cherishes an infatuation from 25 years
ago. Miles' own daughter Tick (Danielle Panabaker) bridles at the thought of her mother
Janine (Helen Hunt) remarrying local health club proprietor Walt Comeau (Dennis Farina), and watches
helplessly while poor student John Voss (Lou Taylor Pucci) is tormented by an insufferable jock, Zack
Minty (Trevor Morgan). Janine is exultant in her escape from marriage with Miles, taunting him with
her new romance and furious that both he and Tick disapprove of her choices.
Miles' wastrel father Max (Paul Newman) still hangs around the café, where his industrious
brother David is introducing special menus on weekends that could make them real money, if only they
could escape the control of Francine Whiting. But with the help of dishonest policeman Jimmy Minty
(William Fichtner) Francine gets an early wind of Miles' attempt to go independent with bar owner Bea
Meanwhile, several revelations about the past give Miles hints to the true picture of the dissolution
of his family when he was a small boy, what really happened between the Robys and the Whitings thirty
years before. Miles' inability to get a grip on the present is hampered by the lack of a full
understanding of the past, while the happiness of Tick's future may be slipping away.
Empire Falls is a sprawling narrative, and for the most part writer Russo and director Schepisi
keep it all on track. The show is very successful at bringing off its major theme of Old Money
warping the destiny of ordinary working people. Miles Roby's mother Grace (Robin Penn Wright) is
more closely connected to the wealthy Whiting family than Miles ever dreamed, so much so that we'd
think a good lawyer and a DNA test could turn the tables on the domineering Francine Whiting.
The show does an excellent job of charting the economic changes that will transform the
sleepy town into a place where the present residents won't be welcome - outside investment will
raise the ante for business participation and simply push them out. The heirless Whitings won't
The hardest part of a multi-character saga like this is to keep it all in balance, and the show
does better with some denizens of Empire falls than others. The need to show the backstory of young
Miles, and his mother's connection with Francine's husband Charles Beaumont Mayne (Philip Seymour
Hoffman) robs peripheral characters of time to establish their roles. Thus William Fichtner's
obnoxious cop Jimmy
Minty is introduced but left a question mark, and Estelle Parson's salty publican Bea is cut down
to a minimum. The most slighted part seems to be Theresa Russell's waitress. It's a major disappointment
when she's only used for incidental color. Even Paul Newman's show-off role is minimized by necessity
in the second half of the show - when he leaves town it's almost to allow
space for the story to proceed on other fronts.
The flashback section of the story that takes place in the late 1950s is sketchy. Robin Penn
Wright is unable to flesh out her role; Philip Seymour Hoffman's participation is a glorified cameo.
Much more satisfying is Miles Roby's relationship with his estranged wife Janine and his daughter
Tick - low-billed Danielle Panabaker makes a much bigger impression than many of the leading
players. A tragedy at her school is the biggest dramatic event, but it seems to be a diversion from
the story's main thrust. Empire Falls is ultimately about the powerlessness of ordinary
people, even when the news is good; Papa Max even wins the lottery, if in a small way.
The Maine locations will be pleasing in themselves. Curiously, the poetic interludes comparing
life's unpredictable destinies with the river flowing past Empire Falls fall almost entirely flat,
with Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning nuggets of wisdom sounding like homilies that belong in a Hallmark card: "Lives
are like rivers. Eventually they go where they must, not where we want them to." And
while the ending wrap-up leaves most of the main characters' fates in limbo, it finds explicit
retribution for the 'villains' of the story.
Ed Harris, Helen Hunt and Dennis Farina are charmingly credible triangle. Hunt, Harris and Danielle
Panabaker do the heavy lifting in the drama department, with Newman, Parsons and Russell as
coloration. Kate Burton is the rich girl from Miles' past. Strangely, only Joanne Woodward seems
forced and out of step as the frustrated Whiting matriarch with few redeeming qualities.
HBO's DVD of Empire Falls is a beautiful enhanced 16:9 transfer with excellent color and
clear sound. Curiously, this is a contemporary story in which no television or radio is heard;
Empire Falls is an insular place as devoid of outside media as it is of minorities.
The director and writer are featured on a commentary track and after a slow start conduct a spirited
conversation of most aspects of the film. The second disc has an HBO 'making of' featurette that is
really a glossy long-form promo for the show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Empire Falls rates:
Supplements: Commentary by director Fred Schepisi and writer-author Richard Russo;
promo featurette The Making of Empire Falls
Packaging: Two discs in booklike folding card and plastic case
Reviewed: September 11, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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