By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Review: Mildred Pierce
Kate Winslet is terrific in many ways in Todd Haynes’s lengthy five-episode HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce — not the least of which is bringing her own unique sensibility to the role made melodramatically iconic by Joan Crawford back in 1945. Although Crawford won her only Oscar for the role, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name, probably in part because Crawford has just never been one of my favorite old-school actresses.
But no worries, because Haynes has gone back to the source material rather than the Curtiz film, and the end result is far more Douglas Sirk revisisted than Curtiz. Which isn’t altogether a bad thing — Sirk’s Imitation of Life is one of my favorite old guilty pleasure melodramas … and what better time than now to to revisit a Depression-era melodrama revolving around a fulcrum of economics and class and survival?
Frankly, America could use a good healthy dose of Mildred and her pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, no bullshit, self-confident optimism right about now; and if this is a perfect time to revisit this story, could there be a better modern actress to take ownership of the title role and make it her own than Kate Winslet? This role, this performance, has “Emmy win” practically engraved on it already for the divine Ms. Winslet, and deservedly so. Give credit where it’s due though … this Mildred may ride on Winslet’s shoulders, but the script, co-written by Haynes and Jon Raymond, takes full advantage of the luxuries of adapting a novel to a miniseries format, where you have room to really sink your teeth into both story and character development.
Winslet revels in having room to fully explore Mildred as a fleshy, smart, woman who is — on the surface at least — tough as nails when it comes to surviving both business challenges and tragic loss, even as she’s sometimes foolish and weaker than she should be when it comes to relationships with men (aren’t we all, girlfriend). At the same time, Winslet also capture’s Mildred’s underlying fear and vulnerability. (And as an aside, I felt myself constantly worrying for Mildred about things like birth control and STIs …)
One minor detraction: I don’t want to pick on a child actor, but I really found Morgan Turner, who plays younger Veda, pretty much intolerable (Evan Rachel Wood, thankfully, picks up the part for the later episodes when Veda is older). This isn’t entirely Turner’s fault; I really dislike this character intensely, and that’s at least in part due to what I see as a fairly significant issue with this story: I just didn’t buy the connection between Winslet’s Mildred and Turner’s Veda. I wanted to! I kept looking for ways to make it feel better, more natural. I just never felt a natural bond was there, not between the characters, and not between the actors.
Turner does convey the Bad Seed/Rhoda Penmark-ishness of Veda pretty well, but almost overkills it to the point of Veda feeling like a little sociopath rather than just a bratty, petulant little girl. I’ve been struggling with putting my finger on exactly why, and not having read the book I can’t say whether this is a problem that existed in the novel and was carried over here, but it’s hard for me to buy that a woman who is otherwise as smart, passionate, and caring about her daughters as Mildred is would raise a daughter who’s such an endlessly reprehensible pain-in-the-ass of a brat, particularly in an age when parents generally were far less likely to be the brand of sappy, kid-ruled parental units that are unfortunately proliferate from Seattle’s trendy hipster neighborhoods to Park Slope.
At least in Imitation of Life, Sarah Jane has a plausible reason for growing up to be young woman who struggles with the opposing pulls of loyalty to her mother, and the benefits she can gain by passing as white. Racism was very much at the forefront of social issues in 1959 when Douglas Sirk made his melodrama. The class issues that here seem to infest young Veda, though, feel to me to be less believable, and the way in which young Turner conveys Veda’s affectation here feels terribly stilted and over-coached. Whether this is a casting problem or a directing issue, it’s hard to say (I kept longing, desperately, for Elle Fanning to show up and save the day), but as I was watching Mildred Pierce, just about every scene with young Veda made me cringe.
Fortunately, all that came before was forgiven when Evan Rachel Wood takes over as Veda ages up. There’s a killer scene after Veda’s piano teacher has died, when Mildred arranges with Veda to play for a famous composer, that rips your soul out and almost makes you feel sorry for Veda. Almost … but not too much if you know what’s coming next.
Mildred as a character has always been fascinating, but she’s much more so in this adaptation where there’s less emphasis on the “raciness” of the divorced Mildred and her relationships with men and more on Mildred’s inner strength and desire to survive.
The issues are particularly timely in this economic climate, when people lose their jobs and may have to consider taking jobs they previously would have considered “beneath” them in order to keep providing. Mildred’s pride, and her maternal protectiveness of her daughters and her desire that they be both cared for and proud of their mother, leads her at first to conceal that she’s taken a job (the horror! — but really, it was a the time, for a woman of her class and station) and then to decide rather impulsively to start her own restaurant and become a businesswoman. It’s that tenacity, that ability to think out of the box, that is just as relevant in 2011 as it was in the Great Depression.
Which, as an aside, makes me kind of wonder why Todd Haynes didn’t just go for it and update Mildred Pierce to modern times while he was at it. Yes, yes, period pieces are cool, and he does them very well, and they’re fun from a production and costuming standpoint. But the story applies just as well to now as it does to then, and it would have been interesting, actually, to see Ed Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography and muted color schemes and use of framing shots through windows and doorways, applied to a more modern Mildred.
I daresay from my own experiences that the lecture Mildred gets at the unemployment office with regard to how the working world views women who forestall careers — or even just put them on hold temporarily — to be stay-at-home moms, hasn’t changed all that much since the 1930s. Believe me — been there, done that, when I took five years off from the tech world to raise babies, thinking I could jump right back into that game. I get Haynes keeping it period, though — he did so to great effect with Far From Heaven (also shot by Lachman), and here he captures Depression-era California within the class structure Mildred exists in, very effectively.
Haynes’ version of Mildred Pierce is lovely and solid, and the miniseries format allows plenty of room for Haynes to unravel the story at his own pace, and aside from my issue with young Veda, the rest of the acting is all superb. Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham, as Mildred’s BFFs and business cohorts Lucy and Ida, are pretty awesome (and who wouldn’t like to have a couple dames like Leo and Winningham to have your back?), and Guy Pearce as Mildred’s lover Monty Beragon is as appealing and smarmy as ever a playboy/gigolo with questionable morals ought to be, if he’s to snag a gal like Mildred in spite of the better sense that ought to tell her to stay away from a guy like him.
The best scene in the first two episodes, though, for my money, is the wrenching moment when Mildred and her philandering husband Burt decide to file for divorce so that Mildred can get the property she needs for her restaurant. That lingering sense of what was once a love between two people, fought for, neglected, and ultimately given up on with a sense of finality and regret and moving on, was, simply, perfectly written, perfectly acted … and very hard to watch. Which, I guess, is the ultimate compliment for such a scene.
The first two episodes of Mildred Pierce aired Sunday on HBO, with the next three episodes to follow, but if you missed Parts One and Two, it appears they are available through On Demand for you to get caught up before Part Three on Sunday.