Monday, March 28, 2011

HBO's Mildred Pierce: A Review

Last night, HBO premiered the first two parts of a five-part miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce. Starring Kate Winslet, the series is a remake of Joan Crawford’s famous weepy/film noir version in 1945. That version was directed by Michael Curtiz and netted Crawford an Oscar for Best Actress. Due to the era in which it was produced, the film version was truncated and tamed down, so the HBO miniseries, directed by Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven), brings back elements in the novel that were left out in the previous adaptation.

Mildred Pierce is the story of a single woman struggling to raise two daughters after her husband abandons her for another woman during the Great Depression. Her aspirations to provide her daughters with the middle class lifestyle they had become accustomed to before the Depression hit leads her to desperate straits and desperate acts. After a lengthy sequence in which she goes job hunting, she eventually lands a job as a waitress in a small diner even though it goes against her loftier sensibilities for social refinement. She gets involved with men who clearly use her for their own ends. But the main pull of the plot involves Mildred’s older daughter, Veda, whose approval Mildred seeks to gain. Adopting her mother’s attitudes of class, Veda looks down on Mildred’s choices in life, prompting Mildred to start a restaurant in the hopes of living up to her daughter’s social ambitions. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the Crawford version, I won’t divulge the plot, but needless to say Veda is cold, heartless, and ambitious. In other words, she is one bad seed.

Todd Haynes does a fantastic job of recreating the Depression era and the desperation of the lives of people struggling to keep their head above water. That desperation is apparent when, after hitting the streets in search of a job, Mildred checks the inside of her heel where she has covered a blister with a Band-Aid. In another scene, Mildred is told by an employment agency that there are plenty of women, including those with PhDs, who are looking for and not getting work. And when Mildred is offered a job as a maid for a woman about to marry a Hollywood producer, you really sense Mildred’s determination to maintain her dignity in the face of demeaning circumstances.

The cinematography is beautiful and the acting runs the range from spot-on to adequate. Kate Winslet does a marvelous job of portraying a woman who is frustrated by her limitations, yet determined to become the woman both she and her daughters can admire. Morgan Turner and Quinn McColgan are good as Mildred’s two daughters, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood takes over the part as the older Veda in subsequent episodes) and Ray. Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham are hoots playing Mildred's best friend and fellow waitress respectively. They are the kind of ballsy women that were so common in 1930s and '40s pictures, but don't appear in film and television anymore.

The first two parts though have their weak spots. Its Depression-era attitudes about women, work, and sexuality can come across as archaic (though Haynes treats the novel’s themes with a sensitive touch) and the beginning drags a bit too long, particularly during the job hunting sequence, but that is the downside of adapting novels into miniseries. Scenes that would have been thrown out or truncated in a film adaptation are allowed to play through and that has the disadvantage of slowing the story down. Still, the plot does move along and by the end of the second part Mildred has begun an affair with a rich playboy (Guy Pearce), lost her youngest daughter, and is about to open her first restaurant.

Despite its weaknesses, Todd Haynes’ version of Cain’s novel is compelling and timely. Winslet's commanding, Emmy-worthy performance is more than enough make to keep me watching.

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