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With the HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce, director Todd Haynes tilts a lance at the publicís memory of the classic 1945 film that brought Joan Crawford an Oscar and cinematic immortality.  The biggest difference in Haynesí rendition is in its literalness; sticking nearly word for word to James M. Cainís original 1941 novel.  When youíre finished with all five episodes and nearly six hours of the series, but for the cornerstone of the premise built around a motherís obsession to please an ungrateful child, you wonít remotely recognise Haynesí adaptation from director Michael Curtizís far briefer one.

The Depression was more than just a financial catastrophe; in the Pierce home, itís a permanent black cloud.  Mildredís impasse with her cheating husband leaves her a single mother with all her focus on her daughter, Veda.  Veda is one spoiled little madam, but Mildred only sees Vedaís greed and selfishness as admirable qualities.  Mildred will do anything for her childís love and respect, even hiding the waitressing job she must keep to survive.  Mildred decides to use her remarkable homemaking skills to open up a restaurant of her own, eventually becoming quite an entrepreneur, yet none of Mildredís success ever gains her credit with her snobbish child.  Mildredís new lover, Monty Beragon, a bankrupt playboy, becomes Vedaís new playmate and babysitter, training her in the ways of elitism and debauchery.  The trouble begins when Veda learns those lessons all too well, but will Vedaís reprehensible behaviour force Mildred to finally see the truth about her darling child?

Though Todd Haynesí and Michael Curtizís adaptations couldnít be more dissimilar, itís hard not to compare the two and one of the problems with this new version is that as in Cainís book, Mildred is simply not likeable.  The woman is in a state of constant druthers; someone who never seems to have known joy and may never know it.  The incredible steps she takes to overcome disaster and the lessons learned from that struggle never soak in because of Mildredís tunnel vision.  She only has eyes for Veda and the only thing that matters is making Veda -- who was never grateful a day in her life -- happy.  In the film version, all the heaped-on melodrama gave Joan Crawford a chance to show an emotional gamut and a sense of humour.  The audience rooted for her Mildredís success and was appalled when her daughter was so terrible to such a nice lady.  One wouldnít necessarily call this Mildred nice; sheís a hard-working frump trudging through life with an iron will, a misplaced sense of pride and absolutely no worldview or inner perspective.  After being rebuffed by her teenaged daughter for what seems like the three-hundredth time, Mildred is asked a simple question about Veda, ďCanít you leave her alone?Ē  The shock on Mildredís face that anyone could suggest such a thing leaves viewers no doubt that every emotional kick in the teeth Mildred gets from her child is what sheís asked for.  Of course, the second my kid slapped me across the face, Iíd be out one kid, but Iím not Mildred.  I donít know how many people are Mildred and so it goes we follow the travails of a woman who is a masochistic fool.  The extended format of the miniseries makes these failings not only painful, but tedious. Wake up, sister!

Tedious is also the word Iíd use to describe the pacing of the series.  The timing is so uneven that one wonders whether five episodes were even necessary?  My sense was this could easily have been wrapped up in three.  Opening with bucolic scenes of 1930ís Southern California, everything is filmed in a bright, hazy light and as one would expect from a Haynes production, the details of the period are rich and flawless.  Sadly, the pacing of episode one is excruciating; from the point of Mildredís hoisting of her old man to her frustrating job search, a lot of nothing happens.  Things begin to warm up near the end of episode two with the appearance of Monty, Mildredís new suitor from Old Money.  Heís a spoiled bad boy with a barely-veiled contempt for Mildredís blue collar riches, yet isnít too proud to freely partake of it, becoming Mildredís kept man.  Things pick up again when Veda as a child is replaced by her teenaged self in the final two episodes.  Even so, there are some perplexing choices regarding the seriesí tempo, like the duration of an opera performance:  A poignant moment for sure, but far too long.  The book is written in a third-person narrative, so Haynes has the characters awkwardly give voice to every description and exposition the narrator is not present to provide.  A scene where Mildred explains how another characterís name was pronounced felt superfluous because that particular character hadnít appeared onscreen for three chapters.  The strict adherence to the source may have been admirable for fans of James M. Cainís or the Mildred character, but doesnít necessarily make for good cinema and possibly even worse television.

Playing Mildred as rigid and miserable as she is here is a pretty thankless task, but Kate Winslet gives it her all.  She is, perhaps mercifully, too attractive to dislike even in her characterís unpleasant skin.  We can see the might of Winsletís performance, but Mildred is written as so one-note and droning, itís like asking a world class sprinter to run in place as fast as they can.  For the first three chapters, Morgan Turner plays Veda and she definitely captures the pompous affectation described in the book, but it goes a bit far and the performance comes off oddly.  Younger Veda is unlovable and itís a stretch to see why Mildredís so devoted.  When Evan Rachel Wood takes Veda over, we can see the more actressy nature of her pretensions and it makes more sense.  Wood chomps into the role like a snake in a ratís nest.  Sheís all venom and artifice, but Vedaís looks and charm allow us to see why Mildred not only loves her child, but lives vicariously through her as a second chance to get things right.  The amazing Guy Pearce plays the slithery Monty, a character that could have easily been one-dimensional but for the pathos and self-loathing Pearce imbues in him.  Once again, Iím left to wonder why Pearce isnít the most famous, in-demand actor on the planet?  For all that Mildred Pierce could be termed a series for women; the performances by the men are some of its strongest tent poles.  The excellent BrŪan F. O'Byrne plays Mildredís ex-husband Bert far more sympathetically than heís written; a simple guy who loves his family, but needs the support (- and ego-boost) of a good woman.  He and Mildred married too young for her to have been that woman.  In another 1945 comparison, an almost-unrecognisable James LeGros adds brash character to Jack Carsonís strident, dated portrayal of the Pierceís double-dealing frenemy lawyer.  Back to the ladies:  In the 1945 picture, Eve Ardenís unforgettable character, Ida, was actually a combination of two women in the book.  The more Arden-ish of those is played by Melissa Leo as a kindly, streetwise neighbour who sometimes sees things too clearly for Mildredís taste.  Leo takes her part with a heavy splash of Ardenís sass, making her one of the most memorable things in the series.

As an experiment in adaptation, Mildred Pierce is interesting.  There must be something to a production with a cast this brilliant and it is the superior performances that are really the compelling factor.  If you canít appreciate the fine acting, the material is simply not as incendiary as it mightíve been seventy years ago.  Haynes further sticks to the novel versus the 1941 film by removing a huge noir-ish plot point that wasnít in the book, but made the movie a melodramatic smash.  Being HBO, there are a few sex scenes sprinkled about and Wood prancing about in all her glory for one scene, but those few and far between moments are not necessarily enough to hold anyoneís attention through almost eight hours spread over more than a month of Sundays.  So, if youíre looking for something fiery and sensational, this may not be your slice of pie.  Ultimately, for the purpose of keeping a cable audience over five weeks, Mildred Pierce, gorgeous and brilliantly performed as it is, doesnít work as anything more than a tepid soap opera, nor did it require so much time to be told.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 23rd, 2011

 

 

 

 

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