“Mildred Pierce,” a beautifully made mini-series on HBO and stars Kate Winslet, is a five-part drama that is loyally, unwaveringly true to James M. Cain’s 1941 novel but takes some liberties with plot, characters and settings, as compared to the original 1945 film noir. The Hollywood version did compress the Depression-era drama into a soapy 1940s murder mystery.
“Mildred Pierce” the original 1945 film was one of the works of director Michael Curtiz, who had previously made “Casablanca,” William Faulkner was one of the screenwriters, and its star, Joan Crawford, won an Oscar by playing against type as a loving mother.
The tale gives fresh expression to an age-old primal fear: a mother’s dread of being supplanted or destroyed by a daughter. Mildred Pierce is a housewife in Glendale, Calif., whose life is turned upside down in the Great Depression. Her husband, a failed real estate developer, walks out, leaving Mildred a grass widow with no income besides the money she makes baking pies for neighbors. After a scene of domestic acrimony over who’s doing the work around here (which resonates far beyond place and time), Bert Pierce (Brian F. O’Byrne) packs his bags and moves in with the braless Mrs. Biederhof. Mildred is left to the kind but canny ministrations of her neighbor Lucy, played with breathtaking aplomb by Melissa Leo. Mildred’s tortured relationship with her spoiled daughter, Veda, is an even darker variation on the classic younger woman/older woman rivalries that fueled “All About Eve,” “Bonjour Tristesse” and even “The Bad Seed.” The miniseries begins in 1931 and Bert’s home building empire is washed out from the Depression. Veda is 11 and, as soon as we meet her, unbelievably haughty, for no discernible reason. Even though they live in Glendale, Veda – who plays piano – fancies herself among the upper crust and Mildred mostly endures the acid-laced talk Veda gives her. If Mildred desperately wants Veda’s approval, we don’t necessarily get that from Winslet, who tolerates most but not all of young Veda’s indifference and acting out (she’s not afraid to spank her, for example) with a look that says perturbed, not overtly hurt by the unrequited nature of their relationship. We get glimpses of Veda’s bitterness. With her father out of the house and shacked up with another woman, Mildred – gasp – has to work. The only job Mildred can get to support Veda and Ray is a waitress job. It’s an idea that disturbs Mildred but, hey, the toll of the Depression isn’t over. Her kids need to eat. She’s a lousy waitress at the beginning, but she has a side business making pies, something she’s done at home for a while. And that’s the key turnaround for Mildred.
While Veda spirals into bad behavior and some of her monstrous tendencies reveal themselves to Mildred, we still don’t quite get enough storytelling as to why Mildred should be the one to blame. Nor is it clear, other than a mother’s love for her child, while Mildred seems so resentful of being shut out of Veda’s life.
It’s worth noting that noir is missing here, replaced by ever-increasing melodrama. Where Crawford’s Mildred was clearly a victim, a lady hiding her klieg light under a bushel basket, Winslet’s is a subtle, sweaty and compelling mess. Of pride and grit, self-indulgence and self-neglect, common sense and delusion.
Filmmaker Todd Haynes wanted to focus on how Mildred Pierce suffered from cheating husbands, economic turmoil and long odds of making it in the world as a single mother with two kids, only to complete a reversal of fortune that ultimately wasn’t nearly enough for her daughter, Veda, to appreciate. (The film with Crawford focused on Mildred’s then-shocking relationships with men, living outside conventional norms, a murder and her inability to please the petulant Veda). Haynes also directed the 2002 movie “Far From Heaven” as a homage to the 1950s Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, here pays opulent tribute to the written word. Yet his painstaking effort to restore every brushstroke of the author’s original story paints over the ambiguities of class and social ambition that play out within the Pierce family dynamic.
Kate Winslet stars here as Mildred, with Brian O’Byrne as her first husband, Bert, who cheats on her and is, after it becomes too much for Mildred, tossed out of their Glendale home. Guy Pearce plays Monty, the rich slacker cad who seduces Mildred and stokes her independence. Melissa Leo is her neighbor and confidante, Lucy. And James LeGrosis her business counsel (and sometime lover) Wally, who was also friends with Bert. But the central concern in Haynes’ version of Mildred Pierce is Veda, played as an 11-year-old by Morgan Turner and then as a 20-year-old by Evan Rachel Wood. Indeed, it was Cain’s focus as well, with Veda meant to be spoiled and petulant at first and then increasingly mean and evil through the years. But there’s an absolute disconnect on how Veda turned out this way and, more important, how Mildred would both tolerate and fuel her behavior.
Ms. Winslet is an amazing actress who transparently conveys the heroine’s smallest nuance of feeling, be it shame, irritation, motherly love, anger, sorrow and, once she meets her dashing upper-class lover, Monty (Guy Pearce), lust. The costumes are cut to the fashion of the times, and that authenticity helps evoke the era of breadlines and speakeasies.
Ms. Wood is quite entertaining and over the top as a narcissist with a somewhat monstrous gift for deception and cruelty, but the mother-daughter competition would be more compelling if the women’s moral failings were just a little more evenly matched.
Mildred Pierce: Directed and written by Todd Haynes;Jon Raymond, co-writer; Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, John Wells and Mr. Haynes, executive producers; Ilene S. Landress, co-executive producer. Presented by HBO in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Produced by Killer Films/John Wells Productions.
WITH: Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Guy Pearce (Monty Beragon), Evan Rachel Wood (Veda Pierce), Melissa Leo (Lucy Gessler), James LeGros (WallyBurgan), Brian F. O’Byrne (Bert Pierce).