29 May 2005 | lavatch
"Empire Falls": A Labor of Love!
Richard Russo's 483-page novel offers a multi-faceted story and a fascinating array of characters in a small town in Maine who are burdened by the weight of the past. At the heart of the story is the character of Miles Roby, the proprietor of a local grill. We learn of Miles' love that he felt for his deceased mother and the love that he feels for his young daughter. The story resonated with American readers, and Russo was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
For a film version of Russo's novel, it would be difficult to imagine the assembling of a finer cast for the quirky, eccentric characters of "Empire Falls." The unassuming and selfless Miles Roby is brilliantly performed by Ed Harris. Although Russo was initially leaning towards the actor James Gandolfini for this crucial role, Harris captures the sensitivity and emotional depth of Miles that few other actors could achieve. Other members of this stellar cast include Paul Newman (as Miles' crusty father Max); Joanne Woodward (as the town matriarch Francine Whiting); Danielle Panabaker (as Miles' daughter); Helen Hunt (as Miles' ex-wife Janine); Aidan Quinn (as Miles' brother David); Theresa Russell (as Miles' co-worker and confidante at the grill); Estelle Parsons (as Miles' mother-in-law); and Kate Burton (as Cindy Whiting and lifelong admirer of Miles). These performances were so rich that it was as if the actors had been studying the book and developing their characters for the past three years. This was a film production so faithful to its source that it would be impossible reread the novel without thinking of this enormously gifted cast.
Veteran film director Fred Schepisi led the cast with a sure-handed yet leisurely paced style. In Russo's novel, the scenes from the past are written in italics, placing the key love relationship of Miles' mother Grace and Charlie Mayne in bold relief. This crucial relationship unfolded in the film in a slightly grey haze, which conveyed a visual aura of the past. As performed by Robin Wright Penn and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the relationship of Grace and Charlie was one of the most touching among many in this stellar cast. Schepisi's transitional moments between past and present were brilliantly conceived in the film.
Russo's novel is a uniquely American saga, recalling such great works of naturalism as Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy." The story has great scope and deals with such themes as family dysfunction, small-town gossip, commerce and industry, political infighting, and, above all, family secrets. The painful layers of the past in the lives of the characters were carefully revealed to us and to the characters themselves. In one of the most moving sequences of the film, the past merges with the present, and the realization of Miles is that ultimately one must declare a "truce" with the ghosts from the past.
One of the readers affected by this powerful story was the actor Paul Newman, who had previously collaborated with Russo on the film "Nobody's Fool." Newman served as one of the film's executive producers. This HBO film adaptation of "Empire Falls" has been three years in the making, and the result is truly a labor of love.