Considering Empire Falls is set in a small town and stars Ed Harris, Judge Joel Pearce half expected Satan to show up at some point.
Every small town has a big story.
HBO has set out to prove once again that it can not only compete with Hollywood at their own game, but create glossy miniseries that feel like feature films. While this isn't the best one HBO has produced, fans of novels and drama alike will want to take a visit to Empire Falls.
Facts of the Case
Empire Falls, in Maine, used to be a booming factory town. It has long since slowed down, with the factories closed and no real businesses arriving to take their place. The Whiting family used to run the town, and still does in a way, a cold matriarch (Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve) still sitting on a hill overlooking the city.
This story isn't about her, though. This is a story about Miles Roby (Ed Harris, The Truman Show), the manager of the Empire Grill, who has felt indebted to Mrs. Whiting for as long as he can remember. He wants to take ownership of the business, and has been promised it eventually, but he has gradually come to realize that she has a huge chip on her shoulder from something in the past, and won't rest until Miles has suffered even more injustices. Miles also has a number of other troubles in his life. His ex-wife Janine (Helen Hunt, As Good as it Gets) is getting remarried to local fitness nut Walt Comeau (Dennis Farina, Out of Sight). They want sole custody of his teenage daughter Christina (Danielle Panabaker, Sky High). He also has to deal with his troublemaker of a father, Max (Paul Newman, Road to Perdition) and deal with an angry local cop (William Fichtner, Go).
In the midst of all this madness, Miles crawls into his own past, realizing that his forgotten memories hold the key to the town's future happiness and success.
Novels are usually too long to be adapted as a feature length film. The miniseries has the edge in this respect, with approximately twice the running time to fit the smaller characters and events that create a novel's unique tone and feel. To its credit, watching Empire Falls feels like visiting a small town, meeting the locals and starting to learn about their sordid pasts through the broadly whispered town gossip. Everyone has dark secrets, and living in a small town means that few of them are truly secrets. This series creates a perfect balance between focusing on Miles and spending time with the ensemble cast.
The problem with so many miniseries is that television studios can't afford to hire a top-notch cast. HBO has managed to gather some of the best performers in the business, and uses them well. The acting, as expected, is fantastic. Ed Harris vanishes into the role of Miles, his usually intense persona occasionally peeking through his ugly mullet. This role is like nothing he has ever done before, and he is instantly believable and appealing without seeming artificial in any way. Paul Newman puts in a great performance as Max, and Joanne Woodward is appropriately evil in her small role. This is a great opportunity for William Fichtner, who gets a larger role than he normally gets, and he creates a villain that is also vulnerable and human. Helen Hunt and Dennis Farina offer up tons of laughs (and some genuine pathos). The young cast is also remarkable.
Often, productions like this get drowned in the personalities that get hired on. Fortunately, this cast stays in the background and allows the story (stories, really) to take center stage. Primarily, the interplay between power and love is explored. Miles isn't very good at dealing with love or power, but his affection for his daughter forces him to embrace power for the first time. His pursuit of power and independence becomes the quest of a reluctant hero, but it feels so different when it's not a young man. The narrative then looks across both the past and present to solve the remaining mysteries and puzzles. Along the way, life lessons are learned and current social issues are explored, but it rarely feels heavy-handed. This is the kind of drama that we rarely see anymore, and it's a pleasant change.
The disc is also well produced. The video transfer is very strong, and looks a lot more like a feature film than television. The production values are excellent, and this image shows it off. There are no visual flaws in either the print or the transfer. The audio is pleasing as well, with a 5.1 track that generally sticks to the front sound stage but occasionally fills the room with music and ambient noise. There are two extras on the discs, a commentary track with author Richard Russo and director Fred Shepisi. They talk about the expected topics, and it improves after a very shaky first few minutes. There is also a brief production featurette, which is mostly self-congratulatory blather.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My main complaint with Empire Falls is the ending. Novels can often get away with wrapping up several plot threads at the end, as an epilogue of sorts. In a miniseries, it doesn't play out as well. The emotional climax of the film feels abrupt, and doesn't really bring the story arch to a satisfying end. To make matters worse, many of the remaining problems are magically solved during the epilogue, breaking the film's illusion of reality. Ultimately, Empire Falls simply proves once again that although novels can be adapted well to film, they will never become a replacement.
Empire Falls is a town that's nice to visit, but not a very good place to live. As such, I would recommend the series as a rental rather than a purchase. I can't imagine wanting to watch it on a regular basis. That said, it's a finely crafted story with great characters, and is well worth checking out.
Empire Falls is great, but it's no replacement for a real novel. Not guilty.
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