Published: March 30, 2011
Directed by Todd Haynes
On HBO through April 24
The most curious question that keeps popping up in casual conversations about HBO’s five-episode miniseries is why. Why does this 1941 James M. Cain novel require another adaptation following Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning turn in Michael Curtiz’s 1945 Warner Bros. adaptation? Why treat it as a five-and-a-half-episode miniseries that feels more like a BBC one-off? Why give an already feted actress so much screen time in what feels like an Emmy bait role? Why let Todd Haynes go to the well of classic Hollywood again after he already left his mark on the era with 2002’s Far From Heaven? Why, why, why? Each question raises its own set of issues, but the only simple answer for the lot is that this treatment, the first two installments of which premiered March 25, is simply an excellent example of serial television.
Cain, who was born in Annapolis and worked for both The Baltimore American and The Baltimore Sun, was never as hard-boiled a novelist as some of the writers whose company with whom he was associated once American authors of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s started getting turned into movies on the cheap in the genre that was eventually dubbed film noir. In the novels for which he’s best known, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, he was never as cleverly inspired by the criminal evils that men do as he was by the odd powers men and women can exert on each other. Mildred Pierce, though, barely fits into that mold. It’s more a classic melodrama in which a middle-class housewife struggles to support her two children during the Depression. Director Curtiz turned it more conventional mystery, a picture anchored by Crawford’s scene-stealing performance.
Almost everything about Haynes’ treatment goes in the exact opposite direction of the novel and 1945 movie. Co-written by Haynes and Jon Raymond, this version is beyond subtle, quiet instead of melodramatic, and remarkably self-contained. As it was in Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and I’m Not There, Haynes’ approach to period detail is obsessively exquisite, and cinematographer Edward Lachman (who lit Heaven) wisely doesn’t go for that amber glow typically associated with this era of Southern California. Instead, he treats the 1930s Los Angeles as realistically sunny as John Alonzo did in 1974’s Chinatown, which takes place at roughly the same time.
This relaxed, naturalistic approach allows the filmmakers to stretch out rather than compress the story, which gives a great actress, Kate Winslet, the room to do more with very little. Winslet’s Mildred is an already unhappily married wife to developer Burt Pierce (Brian F. O’Byrne) when the series opens, and they’re splitting up even before their two daughters, young Ray (Quinn McColgan) and older Veda (Morgan Turner as a child, Evan Rachel Wood as a young adult) get home. Almost immediately, she’s having to consider how she’s going to support her family now that Bert has shacked up with his mistress.
Given its Depression setting and the uncomfortable scenes Pierce includes of Mildred searching for a job, drawing a comparison between the show’s hard times and the current economic crisis feels an easy assessment but is a little too trite. Yes, the depressing employment picture painted by the woman and the employment office Mildred visits in the first episode is far too familiar to any of the educated and qualified still unemployed right now, but economics is less Haynes’ concern here than class itself.
Only not in any conventional manner. What this Mildred Pierce explores isn’t the divide between the haves and have-nots, but that odd mental headspace in which Americans see themselves existing outside of class. The class war going on here isn’t between Mildred and the world at large, but between how she sees herself and how she’s seen in her daughters’ eyes. It’s the excruciating sting of being seen beneath your stature by the daughters you’ve done everything in your power to provide with a life better than the one you have. And, as masterfully played by Winslet and the precociously capable Turner in the first three episodes, Mildred Pierce is working its way toward a volatile family showdown typically confined to the more outward and obvious conflicts of The Sopranos.
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