Five Points, a once-thriving town that benefited from the tobacco trade, is now run-down and littered with closed-down businesses. Into this scene, arrives an outsider, Gus Leroy (Colin Firth), who has a plan to rejuvenate the town ans the lives of its diverse group of residents.
An unreleased movie is like a kind of commodity, one whose value goes up and down depending on the vagaries of circumstance. Main Street, which hadn’t previously been fast-tracked for theatrical release, increased in worth on February 28 of this year when the picture’s star, Colin Firth, accepted the Academy Award for Best Actor due to his first-rate performance in The King’s Speech. Main Street may have been shot two years ago, while Firth himself is currently focused on a big-budget remake of Gambit alongside Cameron Diaz, but by virtue of the golden statue it’s now his next release.
Curiously, Firth’s voice is also an issue in this production, although not for such expressive or persuasive reasons. As Gus Leroy, a Texan corporate executive who arrives in a North Carolina locale that is wasting away, Firth does a good job of replacing his cultured London vowels with a refined drawl, but his jaw is locked tight and his teeth are clenched by way of effort, such that the sombre expressiveness of his face is lost. Firth sounds right, but he looks wrong; it’s as if he needs corrective dental surgery.
That sense of being not quite right, a feeling of cultural dislocation, permeates this storied independent production. It begins with debutante director, Scottish theatre director John Doyle, whose feel for the material, an original work by the late playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, never finds sure footing. Doyle is workmanlike with his cast and camera, but elements of the filmmaking language elude him: simple inserts that should illuminate the setting are confusing. Hence it’s unclear if Durham is a fading rural town, a troubled small city or the quiet edge of a metropolis.
Given the importance Foote – a prolific scribe for the stage whose major screen credits were the 1962 adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and 1983’s Tender Mercies – puts on the value of community and the place of history, such uncertainty is worrying. Specificity helps, because Main Street was one of Foote’s final works (he passed away in 2009 at the age of 92) and it has the contemplative air of a late-period piece, where the past and present overlaps. 'Are you tired?" an elderly lady, Georgiana Carr (Ellen Burstyn), is asked. 'Yes, maam," she slowly replies, and her exhalation is meant to convey a lifetime’s worth of vexed experience.
It’s Burstyn’s character, a southern spinster who lives with the memories of her once great tobacco growing family, who rents an empty warehouse to Firth’s Mr. Leroy. His purpose for it is initially left unstated, although the occasional shots of ominous semi-trailer convoys leaves no doubts that a purpose is on its way. You may be fooled into thinking that the cargo is the issue, whether as a metaphor or otherwise, but Foote is more interested in the curious inertia of these Durham residents.
Georgiana doesn’t know whether to sell her family home, while former high school sweethearts Harris (Orlando Bloom) and Mary (Amber Tamblyn), a police officer and legal secretary respectively, can’t quite explain why their relationship ended. Everyone is in a malaise, and not even the common sense and purposefulness of Patricia Clarkson, as Georgiana’s nice Willa, can cut through the ennui. The resolution, when it comes, is abrupt and not particularly convincing. What should be profound comes off as a snap decision, and the inertia barely lifts.