Monday, April 11, 2011

Finale of HBO's Mildred Pierce Goes Out with a Bang

HBO aired the two-part finale of its miniseries Mildred Pierce with a bang. Much different than the film version, but sharper, more intense, and without any of the Screen Code era moralizing.

In these last two installments, Evan Rachel Wood takes over the role of Veda. Four years have past since last week’s episode and eighteen year old Veda’s piano instructor dies, leaving her rudderless career-wise. On the flip side, Mildred’s restaurant business has taken off. She’s about to open a third branch in Los Angeles in a beautiful seaside resort. By the end of the finale, their careers change radically when Veda, after being rebuffed by a new piano instructor, becomes an opera singer and turns into a major sensation, and Mildred, in her effort to hold onto her daughter, becomes preoccupied with Veda’s career and ends up losing her business. In between there are angry recriminations and betrayals that reveal what a poisonous well Veda and Mildred’s relationship really is. When Mildred learns that Veda trapped a young wealthy swain by getting pregnant and resorting to blackmail, she and Mildred get into a vicious argument after which Veda leaves home. Though Mildred realizes how callow her daughter is, she still yearns for her. She buys a mansion she can’t afford and reunites and marries Monty to win her back. Which of course she does. Sort of. The mansion and Veda’s career leads Mildred back to where she started when the series began, but not before she learns some more bitter truths about her daughter.

There were a number of wonderful moments throughout. Mildred and Veda’s break up scene, Mildred listening to Veda singing on the radio, awestruck and filled with longing as she looks out over the pier; Mildred discovering Veda and Monty’s affair. In fact that last scene was brutal, exemplified all by Veda’s casual cruelty toward her mother (Veda rising naked out of the bed she and Monty slept in was the final sting). When I saw that, I thought: oh, no she is not going there!

Story-wise there were a few implausibilities, one namely being Veda’s singing career. It’s hard to believe that someone can become a talented opera singer just on the basis of humming a Schubert piece. Nor is it possible to learn to sing opera in an intensive one-week program. I’d have believed that more if she was studying opera at a young age instead taking piano lessons. Yet the performances by both Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood were enough to suspend disbelief. Winslet continues her fine performance, and Wood is wickedly cruel as Veda, while also providing her with enough vulnerability that Mildred's love and support for her doesn't come across as entirely masochistic.

The finale is much more measured and nuanced than previous episodes. Todd Haynes knows exactly out to eke out the emotional beats in the story. After Mildred and Veda’s first major fight, he has the camera linger down the hallway when the two women storm off to their rooms, building both the tension and the loneliness in that house. The scene at the pier is a beautiful piece of cinematography and does the kind of work good cinematography ought to do in exploring its subjects emotional worlds. The chase scene after Mildred strangles Veda following her betrayal is one of the more intense ever shot on film. Mildred Pierce is a gorgeous film, but tough and resilient just like its subject.

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