For a long time, Masterpiece Theater cornered the market in upper-middlebrow. You know the type: quality entertainment with a vaguely educational aura ranging from costume dramas to high-class thrillers in the Prime Suspect vein. The predictable ingredients include top-notch acting, well-wrought scripts (typically adapted from a canonical novel, with an occasional tip of the hat to contemporary stuff such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth), inventive but not too arty camerawork, and—the hallmark of upper-middlebrow—unhappy endings. In other words, aesthetic integrity without too many taxing demands on the viewer.
In recent years, HBO has muscled in on the Masterpiece zone. It’s been leavening its diet of edgy, cinematic series such as The Sopranos and Deadwood with a steady stream of Emmy-grubbing TV movies and mini-series. If Sopranos is Scorsese circa Goodfellas, then most of these solid offerings (Warm Springs, Lackawanna Blues, My House in Umbria) are more akin to a late-period Sidney Lumet or post-prime Spike Lee flick: reasonably absorbing and ambitious, but unlikely to set your remote control on fire.
The latest HBO production, Empire Falls, is crammed to the rafters with top-notch American actors—more thespians per square screen inch than any recent television movie I can recall. There’s Ed Harris as Miles Roby, a gentle man with a lifetime of thwarted hopes etched on his craggy face; Paul Newman as his prodigal father, a grizzly-bearded drunk forever sponging money and leaving his responsible son in the lurch. Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, plays steely town matriarch Francine Whiting, who exerts malevolent control over Miles’s life for reasons that gradually become clear to the viewer; and then there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, a figment of Miles’s memory . . . do I need to go on?
Adapted from Richard Russo’s (upper-middlebrow alert!) Pulitzer-winning novel, Empire Falls sprawls across two nights, its narrative unfolding at a leisurely pace. Initially, it seems too quiet for its own good. But the torpid tempo and understated performances do gradually induce a sense of general decline: This is, after all, a formerly bustling mill town brought to a near standstill after the Whiting clan abruptly decided to close the textile factory some decades ago, putting most of the residents out of work. Rumors circulate about developers’ plans to revitalize the place, yet Empire Falls, despite its grandiose name, remains a backwater bypassed by history.
Just about the only haven of warmth in the ramshackle downtown is the Empire Falls Grill, run by Miles and his brother (Aidan Quinn). Unfortunately the place is owned by Mrs. Whiting, and she refuses to let the brothers improve the restaurant or inject any of their own personality into it. It’s as if she’s exacting some kind of penance, though we won’t understand her reasons until much later—and neither will Miles, who has been tethered to the Grill for decades. Mrs. Whiting originally summoned him home from college to tend to his dying mother. Miles lingered on after her death, partly lured by Mrs. Whiting’s promise to bequeath him the diner someday, but mainly due to his instinct for self-sabotage and a serious lack of willpower.
This Hamlet-style inertia also plays a role in his failed marriage. Fed up with his passivity and desperate for some passion, Janine (Helen Hunt) leaves him for a flashy, virile older guy who owns the local gym and calls himself Silver Fox. Although Miles lacks the get-up-and-go to escape Empire Falls, some of his fellow residents sense—and resent—his disdain for the place they’re proud to call home. In one of the film’s most charged scenes, an old school friend, now a power-hungry policeman, berates Miles, telling him that he’ll never be liked by his fellow townies: “You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t never gonna be good enough.”
After its slow start, the miniseries’ shambling rhythms coalesce. Like Russell Banks’s Affliction, Empire Falls offers a subtle portrait of ordinary people’s lives laden with unresolved conflicts and damped-down passions, the kind of emotions that should have been purged years ago for peace of mind. Eventually catharsis does come, through an event so histrionically out of keeping with the subdued tone of the rest of the drama that it almost ruins it. The tissue of secrets that has held the town together is torn, symbolically at least, and the blood spilled seems to replenish the soil of the local economy. When prosperity returns, however, it does so with a twist that’s not so much unresolved as frustratingly incomplete.
Like a Thomas Hardy novel restaged in New England, Empire Falls‘s worldview is bleak. When its characters aren’t trapped by their own natures or stalled by social restrictions, they’re buffeted by random tragedies, like the accident that crippled Mrs. Whiting’s daughter. In these grim circumstances, the best one can hope for is to retain dignity by adopting a fatalistic stance. Mrs. Whiting tells Miles, “We are what we are. What can’t be cured must be endured.” But as a consolation for life’s insults and injuries, she advocates revenge. “Payback is how we endure, my dear boy,” she says with a final flourish of malice.